PRISONERS OF PEACE: Nobel laureates who refused to give up on fight for rights even in jail

Besides Narges Mohammadi, there are four other Peace Prize laureates who won it when they were imprisoned

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Nobel Peace prize winners (from left to right) Ales Bialiatski, Liu Xiaobo, Aung San Suu Kyi, Carl Von Ossietzky.—Reuters/file
Nobel Peace prize winners (from left to right) Ales Bialiatski, Liu Xiaobo, Aung San Suu Kyi, Carl Von Ossietzky.—Reuters/file

Iranian rights campaigner Narges Mohammadi, who has spent much of the past two decades in jail, became the fifth laureate to win the Nobel Peace Prize whilst behind bars.

Honoured on Friday for her fight against the oppression of women in Iran, the 51-year-old journalist and activist has campaigned against the mandatory hijab for women and the death penalty.

She is the vice-president of the Defenders of Human Rights Centre founded by Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, herself a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2003.

The other four Peace Prize laureates who were imprisoned when they won are:

1935: Carl Von Ossietzky, Germany

Journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp when he won the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize and was unable to make the trip to Oslo to collect the award. 

Von Ossietzky, who had been arrested three years earlier in a raid on opponents of Adolf Hitler following the Reichstag fire, was the first regime critic anywhere in the world to receive the prestigious award.

Furious over the Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision, Adolf Hitler banned all German citizens from accepting a Nobel in any category. While Ossietzky was unable to pick up his diploma and gold Nobel medal, a German lawyer tricked his family into allowing him to pocket the prize money. Ossietzky died in captivity in 1938.

1991: Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar

Myanmar's deposed leader and democracy champion won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, at a time when she was under house arrest as part of a crackdown by the country's military leadership on the pro-democracy opposition. 

Honoured "for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights," Suu Kyi feared she would not be allowed to return to Myanmar if she travelled to Oslo. She was instead represented at the 1991 prize ceremony by her two sons and her husband, who accepted the award on her behalf. 

Symbolically, an empty chair was placed on the stage to mark her absence. She gave her traditional Nobel lecture in 2012, after being freed in 2010 and going on to lead her country. Suu Kyi was again detained after the generals seised power in February 2021. 

In 2022, she was jailed for a total of 33 years, a term later partially reduced by junta chief Min Aung Hlaing.

2010: Liu Xiaobo, China

The jailed Chinese dissident won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. He was serving an 11-year jail sentence for subversion. Honoured "for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China," Liu's chair was symbolically left empty, and no award was handed out. 

His wife, Liu Xia, was placed under house arrest after the prize was announced, and his three brothers were blocked from leaving China. He died in July 2017 of liver cancer in a Chinese hospital at the age of 61, after being transferred there from prison, becoming the second Nobel laureate to die in captivity.

2022: Ales Bialiatski, Belarus

Belarusian rights campaigner Ales Bialiatski, who was jailed in July 2021, 2022 shared the award with Russia's Memorial group and Ukraine's Center for Civil Liberties for their work to document war crimes and rights abuse. 

The head of Belarus's most prominent rights group, Viasna, has been at the forefront of attempts to chart the abuses of the regime of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko. He was arrested -- after months of mass demonstrations over Lukashenko's rule -- on charges of tax evasion, a move seen by fellow dissidents as a thinly veiled attempt to silence him. 

He was represented by his wife, Natalia Pinchuk. He was sentenced in March to 10 years in jail. Other members of Viasna were also handed jail terms.