In this Feb. 17, 2006, file photo, Iranian film director Jafar Panahi as he attends the 56th Berlin Film Festival 'Berlinale' in Berlin. Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, announced Friday Oct. 26, 2012 that the 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought will be won by Iranian dissidents Jafar Panahi and Nasrin Sotoudeh (photo: AP)
"Why should it be a crime to make a movie?" The question of filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who won the Sakharov Prize on Friday - jointly with lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh - after his arrest sums up his commitment to freedom of expression.
Sotoudeh, a lawyer who represented imprisoned Iranian opposition activists following the disputed June 2009 presidential elections, is now in prison herself.
The other finalists for the prize were Ales Bialiatski, a human rights activist in prison in Belarus, and Pussy Riot, the punk rock group that has criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin. Two of the band's members are in prison.
Yekaterina Samutsevich, a member of Pussy Riot, said she was pleased that Panahi won the prize. "It's very important for us that it went to someone who is in jail for their feminist views," she said. "That's essentially the same as what happened to us."
Celebrated by major international film festivals but banned in Iran where the regime considers his gritty, socially critical productions to be subversive, Panahi was arrested for a documentary he tried to make on the unrest which followed the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.
Placed under house arrest and awaiting a final ruling, he was sentenced in October 2011 to a six-year jail term and a 20-year ban on making movies and travel abroad for "acting against national security and propaganda against the regime."
Panahi, 52, the son of a worker who grew up in the slums of Tehran, is a leading exponent of Iranian cinema's "new wave," alongside Abbas Kiarostami, to whom he was assistant at the launch of his career.
After studying cinema, Panahi produced television projects and went into movies focused on social injustice and women's place in the Islamic republic, rousing immediate interest abroad.
His first feature film "The White Balloon" received the Camera d'Or in 1995 at Cannes, which rewarded him in 2003 with a Jury Prize for "Blood and Gold."
He also won the Golden Leopard in Locarno in 1997 for "The Mirror," the Golden Lion at Venice in 2000 for "The Circle," and the Silver Bear at Berlin in 2006 for "Offside."
But his films have upset the Iranian regime, especially as Panahi tagged along with other filmmakers -- many of whom have also been arrested and convicted since 2009 -- in criticising censorship on cinema in Iran.
The practise became more harsh with the rise to power of Ahmadinejad in 2005.
"My imprisonment and that of those I work with symbolises the kidnapping by those in power carried out against all artists in the country," he said after his conviction.
As a committed observer of society, Panahi tries to tell stories "where violence is not necessary," he said of his work in an interview with AFP in August 2010 while under house arrest.
"Why should it be a crime to make a movie?" he asked at the time. "When a filmmaker does not make films, it is as if he is jailed."
Despite being threatened, he refused to leave Iran. He said: "I am in love with my country, and despite all its limitations I would never want to live elsewhere... I have to bear witness to everything that goes on in my country.
"I could not remain indifferent, shut my eyes and not see."
A stance he has not renounced, even under house arrest. He succeeded in 2011 to smuggle out on a USB flash drive his latest production, a diary of his secluded life ironically entitled "This Is Not A Film."
His heavy sentence sparked a global outcry, with condemnations from politicians and artists alike. In Iran, many prominent directors, including Kiarostami, braved the risk of reprisal to ask publicly for the release of their colleague.
And even Ahmadinejad stated in 2011, through one of his advisers, that the government "did not approve" the filmmaker's conviction by the Iranian judiciary, ruled by ultra-conservatives in the regime.
Film festivals in Berlin, Venice and Cannes invited him in 2011 and 2010 to sit on their juries, leaving a symbolic empty chair for him since he was barred from leaving the country.