Nasrin Sotoudeh is an Iranian human rights lawyer who was among the few who bravely undertook the legal defence of dissenters arrested in the 2009 mass protests against an election they believed fraudulent, before her own arrest in 2010.
When she was awarded the prize in 2012, she was serving a 6-year jail sentence on charges of endangering Iran's national security and on a 7-week hunger strike in solitary confinement in Iran's notorious Evin prison, protesting judicial pressure on her husband and young daughter.
In her frail state, she found the strength to write a memorable message to Parliament, read for her at the award ceremony by her friend, colleague and client, Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi. 'The story of human rights, and the mechanisms for guaranteeing them, has come a long way, yet its realisation still largely depends on the intentions of governments, the biggest violators of human rights.' To human rights defenders and political prisoners, Sotoudeh said 'just like you, I also know that democracy has a long and difficult road ahead.'
She was unexpectedly released in September 2013, for reasons not divulged by the Iranian authorities, but her sentence was not lifted, and she is still banned from leaving Iran and thus unable to receive her Sakharov Prize. However, Sotoudeh met in Tehran with the first European Parliament delegation to visit Iran in 6 years, in December 2013. The meeting - in which she focused on the situation of political prisoners, denouncing trials held in revolutionary, rather than criminal, courts as non-transparent - caused furore among Iranian hardliners who accused Sotoudeh and Jafar Panahi of being seditionists.
On her release from prison, Sotoudeh returned to her activism, defending women victims of acid attacks, religious minorities, and human rights campaigns, including that for an end the death penalty. She has been temporarily detained by the Iranian authorities on a number of occasions.
Sotoudeh was able to return briefly to her law career, which she had strived for years to be able to practice and had launched with defending minors against the death penalty. In addition to her 6-year jail sentence, she had been banned from practising law and travelling for 10 years. She contested the jurisdiction of the revolutionary court to ban her from practising law, but, in October 2014 was hit with a 3-year suspension by the Iran Bar association, which she believes was urged by the powerful intelligence ministry.
Sotoudeh began demonstrating every working day for the 'right to dissent' and the 'right to work' in front of the Bar's headquarters in Tehran. Her protest was not covered by Iranian official media, but many other activists and victims of human rights violations joined her. Sotoudeh's suspension was eventually reduced by the Bar, in June 2015, to 9 months, and Sotoudeh ended her protest, though she and her supporters reiterated their demand for the suspension to be completely lifted. She attributed the reduction to the support she received - including that of the European Parliament, the Members of which protested strongly against her ban - and immediately applied for the reinstatement of her licence to practice law.
Sotoudeh means to stay in Iran and fight for reform from within.
Jafar Panahi is an international award-winning film-maker from Iran who is banned from making films for 20 years.
An outspoken supporter of the Iranian opposition and a critic of former President, Ahmedinajad, he was sentenced to 6 years jail for 'propaganda against the Islamic Republic' but his sentence is still awaiting execution of verdict: he is not in jail, but could be imprisoned at any time. Panahi was arrested in 2010 as he was making a clandestine film about the 2009 failed Green movement uprising in Iran. Though released after 3 months, following international protests and a hunger strike, he was then sentenced to jail, banned from making films, travelling and talking to the media.
He told the European Parliament delegation that visited Iran in 2013 that his testimony and that of his lawyer were ignored during his trial, and the verdict had been decided in advance. He warned the delegation that human rights issues are being forgotten as the world concentrates on the nuclear agreement with Iran, and opined that once sanctions are lifted, the repression in Iran will increase. The new Iranian leadership's flexibility was only being applied to foreign affairs not domestic ones, Panahi stated, with the pressure still on the press, on prisoners and on cultural life.
In a media interview in 2014, in defiance of his ban, he said that he felt that he has been released from a small jail only to be thrown into a bigger one, when he was banned from working.
He has nevertheless broken the prohibition on film-making thrice. In 2011 he shot This is not a film in his own home in Tehran, sitting at his kitchen table, talking to his lawyer, waiting to be jailed. In 2014 he returned with Closed curtain featuring a screenwriter living alone with his dog in his house by the sea, with curtains shut. In 2015, Panahi starred in his award-winning film Taxi as a taxi driver talking to passengers, including fellow laureate Nasrin Sotoudeh, as he drives through the streets of Tehran.
Panahi does not regard himself as a political person, but one who is willing to expose injustice. He has spoken out against censorship in Iran and criticised President Rouhani for not accomplishing his electoral promises in this regard, and has launched the Step by step campaign aiming to end the death penalty in Iran.
Panahi's films are known for their humanistic and realistic perspective on life.
Mohamed Bouazizi (1984-2011) was the catalyst of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and an inspiration for the pro-democracy movement that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, known as the Arab Spring.
A hard-working man from a poor background, Bouazizi had been the main provider for his family since he was 10 years old, selling fruit at the market. He left school at 19 so he could support his younger siblings' education.
Bouazizi died on 4 January 2011, at the age of 26, after setting himself on fire in protest against a system that kept him from making a decent living. He had often been a victim of the Tunisian law-enforcement agents who would fine him, confiscate his produce and his scales, and on the last occasion even wrestled him to the ground. His family believe it was the humiliation, not the poverty, which led him to self-immolation after he went looking for justice, but was refused. Bouazizi doused himself in fuel and lit a flame outside the gates of the governorate building in the small town of Sidi Bouzid. A popular man known for giving away produce for free to poorer families, and whose plight struck a chord with many, his act prompted protests that quickly spread, with Tunisians from all walks of life taking to the streets against a corrupt government, high unemployment, and restrictions on their freedom.
Bouazizi was still alive, in agony and wrapped in bandages from head to toe, as the authoritarian regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in power since 1987, began to fall.
Ten days after Bouazizi's death, Ben Ali was forced to resign and leave the country as demonstrators marched in Tunis, many of them carrying Bouazizi's image.
His family take solace in that his death was not in vain, as his action spurred a people's revolution and shook despotic governments in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world. It spread awareness amongst Arab youths that they could voice their frustrations and fight for their dignity when faced with injustice, corruption and autocratic rule.
The Arab Spring and its early optimism have stalled and some of its gains have been reversed, but its birthplace, Bouazizi's Tunisia, continues determinedly on its path to democracy and freedom of thought despite fatal terrorist attacks and security fears.
Ali Ferzatis Syria's best-known political satirist and cartoonist, and one of the Arab world's most famous cultural figures. In 2012 he was voted as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world.
Born in Hama in 1941, Ferzat has published more than 15 000 cartoons in Syrian and international newspapers and won awards for satirising dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi when they ruled Iraq and Libya respectively. His work pushed the boundaries of freedom of expression in Syria, targeting its feared security forces. As the Arab Spring reached Syria in 2011, Ferzat became more direct in attacking government figures, particularly President Bashar al-Assad, and Syrians protesting the regime waved his cartoons in the streets.
Ferzat was attacked in Damascus' Umayyad Square and badly beaten by masked men who deliberately broke his hands, as they shouted at him to respect President al-Assad and obey his masters, after he published a cartoon of al-Assad trying to hitchhike with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, shown driving a getaway car at great speed. Rendered unconscious by the beating, Ferzat was dragged along the road by the car into which his attackers had thrown him, and then left on the street for dead.
Ali Ferzat not only recovered the use of his hands, but broke the barrier of fear to become one of the regime's most outspoken critics through his words and his art. He has won various awards and is the head of the Arab cartoonists' association.
Unable to attend the Sakharov Prize ceremony in 2011 as he underwent treatment in Kuwait for his injuries, he received the award at the Sakharov Prize network public debate held at the European Parliament in 2012, where he discussed with the EP President and other Arab Spring laureates the revolution in Syria and the future of democracy following the Arab awakenings. As a Sakharov laureate, he addressed the first edition of the Council of Europe's World Democracy Forum in 2012.
In 2015, Ferzat was the keynote speaker at the Sakharov Prize network debate on Syria at the European Parliament, highlighting the role of the regional 'sponsors' of the fighting factions in Syria and the need for international pressure to end the fighting.
He is the author of the illustrations of his fellow Sakharov Prize laureates in this book, bringing his unique artistic and humanistic insight to bear on the stroke of the pen with which he brings out the outstanding contribution to human rights of all.
Asmaa Mahfouzis an Egyptian human rights activist and one of the co-founders of the April 6 youth movement.
As the spark of the Tunisian revolution started igniting Egypt in early 2011, she braved President Hosni Mubarak's regime's crackdown on activists and posted calls on social media for Egyptians to protest peacefully in Tahrir Square to claim their freedom, dignity and human rights. Her video went viral with millions of views, and inspired a wave of similar videos, resulting in hundreds of thousands occupying Tahrir Square from 25 January 2011, clamouring for Hosni Mubarak to end his 30-year rule of Egypt, until Mubarak relinquished power on 11 February 2011.
Accepting her Sakharov Prize, Mahfouz described the award as 'homage to the heroes of the revolution'. 'This is a prize that goes out to all young Egyptians, people that have sacrificed their lives', she told Parliament, adding 'we will not betray them, we will continue along the road that they have entered into and we want to make sure that this dream is fulfilled'.
Asmaa Mahfouz was arrested in October 2011 on charges of defaming the military rulers who took charge after the fall of President Mubarak. She was sentenced in absentia in March 2012, but an appeals court overthrew her conviction in May 2012. However, Mahfouz came under increasing harassment, threats and surveillance as Egypt voted a former army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to the country's presidency in 2014, after the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Mursi in 2013 and a period of military-backed interim government. As a heavy crackdown by the authorities, initially targeted at the Muslim Brotherhood, was broadened to attack critical voices and renowned icons of the January 25 revolution, the April 6 youth movement, to which
Mahfouz belonged, was banned by an Egyptian court in April 2014 and three of its leaders, Ahmed Maher, Mohammed Adel and Ahmed Douma, were sentenced to 3 year jail terms on charges including protesting illegally.
2015 saw Asmaa Mahfouz engaging in the new movement Bidayya (Beginning).Together with the founders of Bidayya she came under investigation in May 2015 for allegedly 'inciting subversion of the State order' and was struck with a travel ban.
Ahmed El Senussi, born in 1934, was Libya's longest-serving prisoner of conscience and is now a strong advocate of Libyan reconciliation.
Condemned to death in 1970 for an attempted coup against dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who had overthrown Libya's first and only monarch, King Idris, in 1969, El Senussi spent a total of 31 years in prison. During his imprisonment he endured torture and 9 years in solitary confinement in a cell so small he could not even stand up straight in it. His death sentence was commuted in 1988 and he was released in 2001 from the notorious Abu Salim jail alongside dozens of other political prisoners.
El Senussi describes the Gaddafi regime as 42 years of suffering, oppression and corruption that obliterated the Libyan identity. His motivation to seek to overthrow Gaddafi, he says, was to give people a choice between a monarchy and a constitutional republic because he had experienced the destruction of countries by military rule in Syria and Iraq. He believes it is the nature of military dictatorships to violate human rights and oppress the people.
When a popular uprising backed by NATO toppled Gaddafi in 2011, El Senussi took responsibility for political prisoners as part of the National Transitional Council (NTC), the de facto government of Libya up to the 2012 elections.
El Senussi, a respected tribal leader, became the heart of the federalist movement in Libya, against a backdrop of lawlessness and instability where factions vied for control with arms. He was elected, in 2012, as leader of the Cyrenaica Transitional Council by 3 000 delegates from the region. This council, with no legal or military force, declared itself for a high degree of autonomy for the region.
As Libya's infighting has derailed its initial path to democracy - with the country now having two governments, in Tripoli and in Tobruk, and Islamic State gaining a foothold in the East - El Senussi advocates an inclusive process of reconciliation as the only way to peace. He is against further military intervention, and supports the holding of a popular referendum to decide on the shape of a future Libyan state.
His own vision is for a central federal government and independent governance for the three Libyan provinces of Tripolitania, Barqa (Cyrenaica) and Fezzan. He is a strong supporter of the reinstatement of the 1951 constitution, on the basis of which federalism was the norm under most of King Idris's constitutional monarchy. Though he is a great-nephew of the king, he does not favour a return to the monarchy.
El Senussi has engaged with the European Parliament, the Sakharov Prize network and other international organisations to appeal to the international community to help Libya build the institutions it needs to guarantee the rule of law and human rights for all of its people.