The 2022 Voltaire Human Rights Awards

Brenda Appleton Speech

Sitarah Mohammadi and Sajjad Askary Speech

Mehdi Ali Speech

Thank you to everyone who attended the Voltaire Human Rights Awards dinner on 18 November 2022.

All three categories of award winners accepted their awards at the event.  You can hear their speeches by clicking on the buttons above.

Brenda Appleton - Voltaire Human Rights Award recipient

The Voltaire Human Rights Award honours a person who has made an outstanding contribution to human rights, free speech and/or civil liberties, with particular emphasis on progressing freedom, respect, equality, dignity and action.

Brenda Appleton OAM has been a fearless advocate for trans and gender-diverse (TGD) people in Victoria and more broadly in Australia. Her life story has been one of incredible resilience and personal empowerment.

Brenda was heavily involved in working with the Victorian Government, opposition and crossbenches for the successful introduction of birth certificate legislation that enabled TGD people to access birth certificates which reflected their identity.

As a spokesperson for Transgender Victoria, Brenda has been vital in her leadership, advocacy and training on TGD and LGBTIQ+ issues. Her effective leadership within the community was recognised when she was appointed Co-Chair of the whole-of-Victorian Government LGBTI Taskforce, making her the first trans person in Australia to be named chair of a ministerial advisory committee.

Brenda has also chaired the trans and gender-diverse subcommittee of the former government’s Health and Wellbeing Ministerial Advisory Committee. In this role she formulated the health and wellbeing background paper that was instrumental to the development of the health policy for trans and gender-diverse Victorians. Brenda has also served on the Victorian Mental Health Taskforce and is currently a member of the Senior Victorians Advisory Group. She was chair or co-chair of Transgender Victoria for 17 years.

Brenda was also instrumental in Corrections Victoria adopting a new Commissioner's Requirement for the treatment of TGD people. Brenda is also an ambassador for the Pinnacle Foundation and BreastScreen Victoria. Recently, she co-authored a journal article based on original field research on prejudices faced by TGD people in the criminal justice system.

In a political arena where we have seen LGBTIQ+ people become political footballs, and in particular over recent times young and vulnerable TGD people, we are very proud to award the Voltaire Human Rights Award to Brenda. 

Sitarah Mohammadi and Sajjad Askary 
 Young Voltaire Human Rights Award - Joint Recipients

The Young Voltaire Human Rights Award honours a person who is no older than 30 at the date of their nomination who has made an outstanding contribution to human rights, free speech and/or civil liberties.

Sitarah Mohammadi and Sajjad Askary are the joint recipients of this award. Sitarah and Sajjad arrived in Australia as Hazara refugees from Afghanistan. They have received the award due to their incredible advocacy for the human rights of Hazara people, and other highly vulnerable and marginalised people in Afghanistan. Over the past year they have published articles in major newspapers in Australia and globally, as well as advocating for increased action by Australia to support people from Afghanistan as members of the Action for Afghanistan campaign.

Sitarah Mohammadi was eight years old when she first learnt to read and write. Born in Afghanistan during the previous Taliban regime, she was told that women and girls were second-class citizens, that her people, the Hazaras, had no rights and did not need an education.

It was only when Sitarah escaped to Australia that she was given the chance to go to school. This ultimately led to a wide range of academic achievements including spending 2019 as a Provost Scholar at the University of Oxford. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Human Rights and is currently undertaking her Juris Doctor degree at Monash University.

Sajjad Askary arrived in Australia by boat seeking asylum in 2012. Sajjad holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations and is also a Juris Doctor student at Monash University. He is an op-ed contributor for the Guardian Australia, Al Jazeera English, and other news outlets.

Both Sitarah and Sajjad have become exceptional advocates for the people of Afghanistan. They are worthy recipients of the Young Voltaire Human Rights Award.

Mehdi Ali - Voltaire Empty Chair Award Recipient

Established in 2016, the Voltaire Empty Chair Award is presented to a person who is worthy to receive the Voltaire or Young Voltaire Human Rights Award but cannot be present to receive the award due to the consequences of their exercise of or advocacy for human rights, free speech and/or civil liberties.

The winner of the 2022 Voltaire Empty Chair Award is Mehdi Ali, a refugee from Ahvaz, Iran who had been held in detention by Australia since 2013 including at the Park Hotel in Melbourne. He was afforded protection and resettled in the United States this year.

Mehdi has been a powerful and tireless advocate for refugees and people seeking asylum in detention, including onshore detention. A member of Iran’s persecuted Ahwazi Arab minority, Mehdi was a child passenger on a boat intercepted by Australian authorities in 2013. He was sent to Australia’s detention centres on Christmas Island and then Nauru, an experience that he has described as “a complete trauma”.

Late in 2014 Mehdi’s claim for refugee protection was accepted.

Mehdi was brought to Australia under the short-lived Medevac laws in 2019 and then spent more than two years in detention.

Mehdi fought for and won the right to run a twitter account whilst detained at the Park Hotel. Through his tireless activism he brought attention to the Australian detention system from within with dignity, kindness and optimism, an issue which received international attention during the Djokovic case.

We are honoured that Mehdi has accepted the 2022 Liberty Victoria Empty Chair award.

I hope that you will join us to celebrate the achievements of all the Voltaire Awards winners, and to support the work of Liberty Victoria.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Stanton 



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