Xu Yan says she remembers the moment that her husband Yu Wensheng, a business lawyer, became a human rights activist. It was in 2014, and he had spoken up in support of a popular movement that was demanding genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong. As a result, he was jailed for 99 days, and subjected to torture and ill-treatment while behind bars.
After his release, Wensheng didn’t withdraw into the shadows. Instead, “you gave all of yourself to work,” his wife recalled, pouring himself into the defense of colleagues who were caught up in China’s crackdown against human rights practice. His promotion of the rule of law and constitutional reform attracted the ire of Chinese authorities; in 2018 he was detained and convicted of inciting subversion. He has been in prison ever since.
For his extraordinary strength and courage, Yu Wensheng has been named the winner of the 2021 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. He was honoured alongside finalists Loujain AlHathloul of Saudi Arabia and Soltan Achilova of Turkmenistan.
The prize, which is awarded by a jury of ten global human rights organisations including HURIDOCS, is given to people who have undertaken human rights activism at great risk to themselves and their loved ones. The resulting international recognition can bring both the winners and the finalists a measure of safety, as well as serve as encouragement for other human rights defenders who toil for dignity and freedom in authoritarian contexts.
“Despite endless harassment from authorities since your arrest, I am no longer the girl who bursts into tears in front of challenges,” Wensheng’s wife Xu Yan said in a moving letter to her husband, which was animated and broadcast during the award ceremony on 11 February. “I took the National Judicial Examination this year with the hope to become a lawyer. I aspire to follow your steps.”
“The road is rough and difficult, the darkness is cruel, but we do not give up trying; we believe in love and that the light will come.”
“How could we forget the brave woman you are? The woman who is fighting such important battles for change?”
The entirely digital ceremony also celebrated finalists Loujain AlHathloul and Soltan Achilova.
Loujain AlHathloul is a human rights defender who has campaigned against Saudi Arabia’s oppressive male guardianship system, which strips women in the country of their legal agency to travel or make their own decisions. She was arrested in 2018, and made to endure torture and solitary confinement. Two years later, she was sentenced to five years and eight months in jail by a special criminal court meant for terrorism cases.
With part of her sentence backdated, she was released from prison a day before the 2021 Martin Ennals Award ceremony. Under probation and subject to a travel ban, Loujain does not enjoy the freedom she deserves for her peaceful activism.
An emotional short film about Loujain that was shown at the ceremony features a letter written by her family and addressed to her while she was still in prison:
“You might think that the world has forgotten about you. But rest assured that this is not the case. How could we forget the brave woman you are? The woman who is fighting such important battles for change?”
“I dream of a future where the government leaves my family alone”
“Greetings, my dears!” begins the film dedicated to Soltan Achilova, narrated in her own voice. “It’s a pity I can’t invite you to my place and serve you pilaf. It is not because of the pandemic, but because I live in Turkmenistan, one of the most closed countries on earth. And this is where I work as a journalist.”
Soltan has persisted with her journalism documenting the everyday hardships faced by the population, despite the systematic harassment of her family and the suicide of her son. Her internet has been cut off, and she has been prevented on occasion from leaving the country.
“Still, I believe it’s my duty to tell you what’s going on in my country,” she says. “I dream of a future where the government leaves my family alone — a future where Turkmenistan becomes an open, democratic state.”
“They did not look away”
Speaking at the ceremony, Nada Al-Nashif, the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, highlighted the courage of Loujain, Soltan and Wensheng.
“Each of the three finalists had the choice: looking away or confronting injustice,” she said. “All of them knew that doing the right thing would come at a risk. They still chose human rights. They did so in very different ways using legal means, social media, art. They did not look away. And by staring those violations in the eye, they made sure the world saw them too.”
Every supporter of human rights is also now faced with a choice: let the momentum of the award fade away, or keep up the pressure to ensure that the persecution of Loujain, Soltan and Wensheng comes to an end.
As Xu Yan concluded while accepting the award on behalf of her husband: “I would like to thank the people from all walks of life for their strong support to Yu Wensheng. I would also like to ask everyone to keep giving attention and support to Chinese human rights lawyers, human rights defenders and their families.”
If you missed out on the live stream of the ceremony, which included other artistic tributes to the honourees, you can watch the recording here: