China, Ethiopia, Syrian Arab Republic
, Middle East & North Africa

Prestigious human rights defender award shines light on China, Ethiopia and Syria

Prominent human rights defenders from China, Ethiopia and Syria have been honoured for their courageous work in the face of great personal risk, with the announcement of the Final Nominees for the Martin Ennals Award 2016.

(Geneva) – Prominent human rights defenders from China, Ethiopia and Syria have been honoured for their courageous work in the face of great personal risk, with the announcement of the Final Nominees for the Martin Ennals Award 2016.

Ilham Tohti, a scholar imprisoned for life by Chinese authorities in connection with his advocacy for minority rights, the Zone 9 bloggers, social media activists charged with terrorism related offences in Ethiopia for exercising their right to freedom of expression online, and Razan Zaitouneh, a lawyer abducted and disappeared in Syria for her work to document violations and promote accountability, were short-listed for the prestigious award by a jury comprised of representatives of leading international human rights NGOs.

‘The work of each of the final nominees is representative of the courageous work of so many human rights defenders to champion the rights of victims and the vulnerable, to document and expose violations, and to promote accountability for perpetrators,’ said ISHR Director and Martin Ennals Jury member Phil Lynch.

‘The situation of each of the final nominees – criminalised, imprisoned, disappeared or exiled for their work – is also representative of the grave risks facing so many human rights defenders around the world. Like so many defenders, each of the final nominees has paid an unacceptable cost for challenging authoritarianism, and for speaking out for good governance, human rights and the rule of law.’

The Martin Ennals Award seeks to honour defenders’ courageous work and shine a light on their precarious situation.

Zone 9 Bloggers

Kality prison in Ethiopia, which holds many journalists and political prisoners, has 8 zones. Zone 9 selected their name as a symbol for Ethiopia as a whole where political freedoms are severely restricted. They write opinion pieces and feature articles that focus on the constitution, economic, educational and cultural issues. They document human rights abuses and violations of law by both state and non-state actors. Furthermore, they shed light on the situation of political prisoners in Ethiopia. Two weeks after creating their blog, it was blocked. Two years later six of its members were arrested and charged with terrorism. Although they have now been released, three are in exile while those still in Ethiopia are banned from travel.

They stated: ‘We are extremely humbled to be nominated for the Martin Ennals Award. This recognition raises our visibility enough to increase our safety, and also shows that the World is the home of the same family. It is proof that when one part of the world is silenced, the rest will speak on behalf of it. This recognition will definitely motivate us to push forward on our struggle to create a better Ethiopia where human rights are respected.’

Ilham Tohti

A renowned Uyghur intellectual in China, he has worked for two decades to foster dialogue and understanding between Uyghurs and Han Chinese. He has rejected separatism and sought reconciliation based on a respect for Uyghur culture. Beginning in 1994, he began to write about problems and abuses in Xinjiang, which led to official surveillance. From 1999 to 2003 he was barred from teaching, and arrested in 2009 after posting information on Uyghurs who had been arrested, disappeared or killed during and after protests. Ilham Tohti was arrested on 15 January 2014. He was charged with separatism and sentenced to life imprisonment after a two-day trial.

Accordinf to his daughter, ‘My father Ilham Tohti has used only one weapon in his struggle for the basic rights of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang: Words. Spoken, written, distributed, and posted. This is all he has ever had at his disposal, and all that he has ever needed. And this is what China found so threatening. A person like him doesn’t deserve to be in prison for even a day.’

Razan Zaitouneh

A prominent human rights lawyer, activist, and journalist in Syria, Razan has dedicated her life to defending political prisoners, documenting crimes against humanity, and helping others free themselves from oppression. This resulted in a travel ban in 2002. Following the beginning of the conflict in 2011, she founded the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), which documents the death toll and ill-treatment in Syria’s prisons. With the VDC, she compiled lists of the detained, the executed, and the disappeared. On 9 December 2013, a group of masked gunmen stormed the VDC office in Douma, near Damascus, and kidnapped Razan along with her husband, Wael Hamada, and two colleagues. Their whereabouts remain unknown.

Her sister, Rana Zaitouneh said, ‘Despite her absence, Razan continues to make an impact, inspiring others to stand against their oppressors in the quest for freedom. Her allegiance is to freedom from oppression and fear. And now her own freedom has been taken. Her voice has been silenced. Razan has always believed that all people are equal. She was determined that no one should be forgotten. I am resolved that she will not be forgotten.’

About the Award

The Martin Ennals Award is conferred annually to highlight the work of human rights defenders and provide protective publicity to defenders at risk. The Martin Ennals Jury comprises representatives of ten of the world’s leading international human rights organisations:

  • Amnesty International
  • EWDE Germany
  • Front Line Defenders
  • Human Rights First
  • Human Rights Watch
  • International Commission of Jurists
  • International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
  • International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
  • World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)

Further information about the Martin Ennals Awards, including biographical information and videos about the Final Nominees, is available here.

The Final Award will be announced at a ceremony in Geneva on 11 October 2016.


  • Phil Lynch, Director of the International Service for Human Rights, on [email protected] or + 41 76 708 4738
  • Michael Khambatta, Director of the Martin Ennals Foundation, on [email protected] or +41 79 474 8208

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