Martin Ennals Award Finalists 2021

Three courageous human rights defenders have been announced as the finalists for this year’s Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders!
“Every year thousands of human rights defenders are persecuted, harassed, imprisoned, even killed. The Martin Ennals Foundation is honored to celebrate the 2021 Finalists, who have done so much for others and whose stories of adversity are emblematic of the precarity faced by the human rights movement today”. Isabel de Sola, Director of the Martin Ennals Foundation.

The Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders is an annual award given to human rights defenders from around the world who distinguish themselves by their strong commitment to promoting human rights.

In 2021, the Martin Ennals Award Jury nominated three defenders from different authoritarian contexts. Soltan Achilova from Turkmenistan has documented human rights violations and abuses through photojournalism, while Loujain AlHathloul - a leading advocate for gender equality and women’s rights - is currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Yu Wensheng defended human rights cases and activists before he was convicted and imprisoned in China.

The finalists were presented during an online press conference on January 18.

Soltan Achilova

Soltan Achilova (71) is an independent photojournalist and reporter in Turkmenistan, one of the most isolated and repressive countries in the world. She is exposing the many injustices and human rights violations people face in her country. With almost complete governmental control over its population, citizens of Turkmenistan have scarcely any recourse to defend their rights. Her work illustrates issues affecting Turkmen citizens in their daily lives such as food insecurity, forced and illegal evictions, lack of adequate healthcare and the discrimination faced by people with disabilities. Achilova has reported on these issues for more than a decade, filing articles and reports smuggled on to foreign-based media outlets. Despite the difficult circumstances and personal hardships, she continues to investigate and stand alongside Turkmen citizens.

Loujain AlHathloul

Loujain AlHathloul (31) is a Saudi woman human rights defender. She is a leading advocate for the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Before she was arrested in 2018, AlHathloul was one of the key figures of the Women to Drive movement, which called for the abolition of the driving ban for women. She also advocated for the end of the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia and planned to open a shelter for victims of gender-based violence. Loujain was imprisoned in 2018 on charges related to national security together with several other women activists. Tortured, denied medical care, and subjected to solitary confinement, Loujain was sentenced to 5 years and 8 months in prison on 28 December 2020. AlHathloul is the winner of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award in 2019 and the ‘Prix Liberté’ (Normandie) in 2020. She was named one of TIME Magazine’s most influential people in 2019 and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Yu Wensheng

Yu Wensheng (54) is a Chinese human rights lawyer. He has been detained since 2018 for his activism in favor of the rule of law, democracy and governmental reform in China. Before his human rights engagement, Yu Wensheng was a corporate lawyer. He gave up a successful career to focus on human rights cases, which ultimately led him to speak out more broadly on the rule of law in China. Over the past ten years, Yu Wensheng worked on several high-profile human rights cases, the best known of which is his defense of human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang who was arrested in 2015 during a major crackdown on human rights, called the 709 Crackdown. Despite the risk of doing so, Yu Wensheng decided to take on the case. As one of the best-known and most intrepid Chinese human rights activists, Yu Wensheng has faced the severest forms of repression by the Chinese state, including arbitrary detention, conviction during a secret trial, and expulsion from the legal bar. According to his wife, he is currently being held in solitary confinement, has been denied access to medical care and subjected to ill-treatments which resulted in his hand being crushed. In December 2020, a Chinese regional High Court upheld the four-year prison sentence against him. Ever since, his whereabouts are unknown.


The 2021 Martin Ennals Award Ceremony will be held in a digital ceremony on 11 February, hosted together with the City of Geneva.

The NHRF stands in solidarity with all human rights defenders who use non-violent means and acts to defend human rights. The NHRF has supported the Martin Ennals Foundation since 2017. Read more about Martin Ennals Award here.

“The finalists distinguish themselves by their bravery and deep commitment to the issues they defend, despite the many attempts to silence them by respective governmental authorities.”

- Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders