STRASBOURG  - Iranian rights activists, lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and film-maker Jafar Panahi, on Friday won the European Parliament’s Sakharov prize, just days after the EU tightened sanctions against Tehran. The prize “is a message of solidarity and recognition to a woman and a man who have not been bowed by fear and intimidation and who have decided to put the fate of their country before their own,” said parliament president Martin Schulz. Schulz urged the Iranian authorities to allow the pair to collect their prize in person in December at a parliament sitting in Strasbourg. The award comes on the heels of tough new European Union sanctions against Iran, aimed at forcing a breakthrough in talks between global powers.

After a biting oil embargo took effect in July, EU foreign ministers last week tightened the economic noose by targeting dealings with Iran’s banks, shipping and gas imports. Welcoming the first award of the Sakharov prize by Iranian rights activists, centrist MEP and former Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt said it came at the right time. “In light of current developments it is also a timely moment,” he said. “This award sends a strong message of support to all those fighting persecution in Iran every day: we recognise your struggle, we support your fight for basic human rights and we award your courage.” The two Iranians were shortlisted for the prestigious 50,000-euro ($65,000) prize - whose past winners include Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan - along with the jailed members of Russian all-girl punk band Pussy Riot, and Belarus dissident Ales Beliatsky. Sotoudeh, a 47-year-old mother of two, is a leading human rights campaigner currently held in Tehran’s notorious Evin jail in solitary confinement for her legal work alongside Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi. She is known for representing opposition activists thrown behind bars after Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential elections, as well as juveniles facing the death penalty, and women. After being sentenced to 11 years in January 2011 and banned from practising law for 20 years for conspiring against state security, she recently went on hunger strike to protest harassment against her family.