The Norwegian Nobel Committee opted for the second year in a row to award the Nobel Peace Prize to an imprisoned human rights advocate. That raised questions about the security situation for new Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi, the Iranian champion of women’s rights who’s currently serving another lengthy jail term at what the committee itself described as the “notorious Evin prison in Tehran.”
Mohammadi was hailed for “her fight against the oppression of women in Iran and her fight to promote human rights and freedom for all.” Berit Reiss-Andersen, leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, stressed how the committee wanted to honour Mohammadi’s “courageous fight for human rights, freedom and democracy in Iran” and was careful once again to tie the prize to the terms of prize benefactor Alfred Nobel’s will.
“Only by embracing equal rights for all can the world achieve the fraternity between nations that Alfred Nobel sought to promote,” Reiss-Andersen stated. “The award to Narges Mohammadi follows a long tradition in which the Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the Peace Prize to those working to advance social justice, human rights and democracy. These are important preconditions for lasting peace.”
The committee also has a long history of awarding Nobel Peace Prizes to those who defy authoritarian regimes and who can also wind up in prison. Asked whether the Peace Prize may make matters worse for Mohammadi, Reiss-Andersen told both Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) and Norway’s TV2 that Mohammadi already “has paid a very high price” for challenging Iran’s oppressive regime over the years. The Nobel Committee hopes the prize will instead impress upon Mohammadi that her efforts and sacrifices are not in vain.
“We hope it will be an encouragement to continue her work,” said Reiss-Andersen. She admitted that the committee “doesn’t know much” about Mohammadi’s current situation in prison (some of her sentences have included multiple lashings with whips) but noted that the new Nobel Laureate has been able to smuggle reports and articles out of the prison, and has organized protests from within prison.
The committee also noted in its tribute to Mohammadi that she has been able to express support for the demonstrations that followed the death of Mahsa Jina Amini last year while in custody for not covering her hair in public. “The motto adopted by the demonstrators (Woman-Life-Freedom) “suitably expresses the dedication and work of Narges Mohammadi,” reads the committee’s statement. “She fights for women against systematic discrimination and opporession. She supports women’s stuggle for the right to live full and dignified lives. This struggle has been met with persecution, imprisonment, torture and even death.”
The committee noted that Mohammadi also “fights for freedom of expression and the right of independence, and against rules requiring women to remain out of sight and cover their bodies. The freedom demands expressed by demonstrators apply not only to women, but to the entire population.”
Reiss-Andersen said she hoped “the jungle telegraph works” in getting the message to Mohammadi that she has won the Nobel Peace Prize. She noted how one of last year’s winners, human rights advocate Ales Bjaljatski, quickly learned he had won the Peace Prize while in prison in Belarus.
“These are unusually brave people,” Reiss-Andersen told TV2, adding that she also hopes Mohammadi will continue her fight and, in the best possible situation, be released from prison and allowed to travel to Oslo in December to formally accept her prize. That’s unlikely, but perhaps her family in exile will accept on her behalf. “We have a couple of months to make arrangements,” Reiss-Andersen said.
The fate of other imprisoned Nobel laureates is not encouraging. Bjaljatski remains in prison. Liu Xiaobo of China, for example, was never released from prison and died in custody seven years after winning the Peace Prize in 2010. Aung San Suu Kyi remained in house arrest for nearly a decade after winning in 1991, briefly achieved some political power but was arrested again in 2021 and has remained confined on “various false charges,” according to the committee.
Mohammadi, who has worked for a human rights organization founded by another Peace Prize winner (Shirin Ebadi in 2003), has been jailed for assisting incarcerated activists and their families, and for trying to overturn Iran’s death penalty, which has left the country among those executing the highest proportion of its residents. She has also campaigned against what the committee called “Iranian regime’s systematic use of torture, rape and other sexual violence against political prisoners, especially women.”
Reiss-Andersen appeared heartened that Mohammadi’s message has been that “the more of us they lock up, the stronger we become.” She called Mohammadi both a human rights advocate and “a freedom fighter” and said the prize also recognizes the hundreds of thousands of people who have demonstrated against the Iranian “theocratic regime’s policies of discrimination and oppression targeting women.”
Mohammadi had topped the list of Peace Prize candidates formulated by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) and she was also on Nobel Peace Prize historian Asle Sveen’s candidate’s list as well. The president of the Norwegian Parliament, Masud Gharahkhani, called Mohammadi’s prize “well-deserved” and offering “motivation for others” still pushing for reforms in Iran. Gharahkhani, the son of Iranian refugees in Norway, was among those decrying the death of Mahsa Jina Amini last year but also stressed that the Norwegian Nobel Committee is independent from the Norwegian government and makes its own decisions.
Critics of the Nobel Committee once again complained that the prize did not adhere to Alfred Nobel’s will, which calls for a prize to the person who has done the most to advance fellowship among nations, abolish or reduce standing armies and establish and promote peace congresses. It was gaining other positive reaction on Friday, though, with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (a Peace Prize candidate himself) calling it a tribute “to all the women who fight for their rights at the risk of their own independence.” The UN itself is asking Iran to release the Peace Prize winner.
Her husband and twin sons, now living in France, were overjoyed and called the prize a motivation for her to not give up. By the end of the day, the prizewinner was clearly aware she’s now a Nobel laureate, issuing a message that she wants to remain in Iran and continue her effort along with others in prison: “I will never stop the fight for democracy, freedom and equaity. The Nobel Peace Prize will make me more goal-oriented, persistent and hopeful.”