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Yazidi women who escaped sex slavery get EP human rights prize

Campaigning to have Islamic State’s violence against the Yazidi people recognised as genocide

Updated at 2.40pm

Two young women who escaped sexual slavery and now campaign to have Islamic State’s violence against the Yazidi people recognised as genocide were today awarded the European Parliament’s annual human rights prize.

Nadia Murad and Lamiya Aji Bashar were honoured with the 2016 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in a ceremony held at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

Murad, 23, and Aji Bashar, 18, were taken captive in August 2014, after Islamic State fighters slaughtered all the men in their village in Northern Iraq and enslaved every young woman and child they found.

Both managed to escape their captors and now spend their time calling the international community’s attention to the unspeakable crimes committed against their people.

Dressed in traditional Yezidi clothing, the two laureates received a standing ovation from MEPs and a packed press gallery in the parliament’s Hemicycle.

Both women hammered home their three key messages: that Islamic State’s treatment of the Yazidi people constitutes genocide; that the perpetrators of these crimes must be held to account; and that the international community must ensure Yazidi people have a safe zone in which to live.

“Promise us that never again will you allow such things to happen,” Aji Bashar urged MEPs as she accepted her prize. “It has been two-and-a-half years since our tragedy began, and 3,500 are still held captive. Every day, they die a thousand times over.”

European Parliament president Martin Schulz introduced the laureates as “heroines” and said “the world must hear the courage that underpins the stories of these two women.”

He urged the international community to action. “Saying ‘never again’ to genocide does not mean just remembering, but also acting,” he said. “It is shameful and intolerable that we in the richer parts of the world are sometimes unwilling to extend a helping hand.”

Speaking to the press after the ceremony, Murad made it clear that she was not after plaudits or public sympathy.

“Islamic State dishonoured Yazidi women and brought terror. They  must be brought to account and put in the dock,” she said as she appealed for perpetrators to be tried in the International Criminal Court.

She noted that, as things stood, her people had no home. “It is our right to survive. We need protection and a safe zone in which to live, otherwise we will all end up here, as refugees.”

Belying her 18 years of age, Aji Bashar spoke similarly. “Our story is not just our personal experience, it is the story of all our people. It is not enough for them [Islamic State fighters] to shave off their beards, lay down their weapons and live among us as though they have done nothing.”

Having managed to flee their enslavement, both Aji Bashar and Murad now live in Germany, thanks to a specialised refugee program dedicated to helping Yazidi women and children forced into sexual slavery by Islamic State.

Both repeatedly thanked their hosts and augured that more countries would follow Germany’s lead.

“Germany’s resettlement program is working very well,” Murad said. “Victims can live safely there. I am one of them.”

Sitting between the two laureates, EP president Schulz admitted that achieving consensus on the issue would be difficult. “There is no question that the refugee issue is one of the most controversial among member states,” he said.

 “I cannot imagine that anyone who hears their stories can doubt that they need protection,” Schulz, speaking at his final press conference as EP president, argued. “But at European Council level, you get people who say ‘this is not our problem’”.

What are the Yazidi people, and how are they threatened?

Yazidis are ethnic Kurds mainly found in Iraq’s Nineveh province.

Their faith is monotheistic, and combines elements of Islam, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Like Muslims, they pray five times a day. But Sunni extremists consider them to be devil-worshippers, and Islamic State fighters see them as barely human.

Islamic State conveniently interprets Sharia – a legal code based upon the Quran – as permitting sexual slavery, and the young men fighting for the death cult have made use of this interpretation to enslave thousands of young girls, many of them barely out of puberty.

Thousands of Yazidi have been slaughtered by Islamic State militants, and an estimated 400,000 have been displaced, forced to flee to survive.

Within the Islamic State’s caliphate, enslaved Yazidi girls as young as 8 are bought and sold in markets like cattle and traded among fighters as commodities. Girls are traded in online auctions and children are separated from their families. Men are killed, as are women who are considered too old to be useful to the sex trade.

More than 6,500 Yazidi women and children are believed to have been taken into captivity by Islamic State. As of August 2016, an estimated 2,600 had managed, like Murad and Aji Bashar, to escape their captors. Of the 3,500 still in captivity, hundreds are believed to have committed suicide.

What is the Sakharov Prize?

The Sakharov prize is awarded to individuals who have made an exceptional contribution to the fight for human rights. Previous laureates include the late Nelson Mandela, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai.

It is the highest tribute paid to human rights work by the European Union and seeks to promote freedom of expression, minority r ights, respect for international law and the rule of law.

Each of the EP’s political groups may nominate candidates, with each candidate requiring the support of at least 40 MEPs. Nominees are then whittled down to a shortlist of three, with the winner receiving a €50,000 enowment.

Aside from Murad and Aji Bashar, Turkish journalist and former editor of Cumhuriyet Can Dündar and Ukrainian MP and leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement Mustafa Dzhemilev were also shortlisted for this year’s Sakharov prize.

Dündar  was forced into exile after being sentenced to almost six years behind bars for having published footage of Turkish officials sending weapons to Syrian Islamists, while Dzhemilev, 73, has spent almost 15 years behind bars for dissident activities which date back to the 1960s.

The European Parliament uses the prize to shine a light on a particular issue, and EP president Schulz was explicit in saying that he hoped awarding this year’s prize to Murad and Aji Bashar would spur the international community into action.

“This prize is a signal that EP wishes to focus attention on this issue,” he told journalists at a press conference following the prize ceremony. 

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