Russian civil rights activists awarded EU Sakharov Prize


THREE RUSSIAN human rights activists have been presented with the European Parliament’s annual Sakharov Prize in recognition of their work in an environment of “fear and violence”.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Sergei Kovalyov and Oleg Orlov, of the human rights group Memorial, accepted the award yesterday on behalf of all those who defend civil rights in their country.

Jerzy Buzek, the parliament’s president, said that despite his pride in presenting the award, he felt “bitterness that it is necessary to award this kind of prize in Europe”.

“Human rights defenders in Russia are awaiting liberty,” said Mr Buzek. “They are waiting for European Union support, and we are awarding this prize today to all Russian citizens.”

Memorial was founded two decades ago to remember the victims of Stalinist oppression but expanded to cover a broad array of civil society development issues.

The group recently announced the resumption of its operations in Chechnya, having suspended its work there in July following the abduction and murder of Natalya Estemirova, one of its members.

“It is Europe’s duty not to remain silent” in the face of Russian human rights abuses, said Mr Kovalyov – a Gulag survivor – after he and his colleagues were given a standing ovation.

Ms Alexeyeva (82) and Mr Kovalyov (79) were both leading Soviet dissidents and are contemporaries of the late Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel peace laureate for whom the prize is named.

The pair shared the Olof Palme Prize in 2004 with Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who exposed corruption and rights abuses in Chechnya before she was killed in Moscow in 2006.

Speaking on the 20th anniversary of Sakharov’s death this week, Mr Kovalyov said his work was now more dangerous than in the final decades of the communist regime. “We live in the Soviet Union, only a modernised, improved one,” he said.

While Russians today enjoyed many more freedoms, there were “much fewer” killings of dissidents during the communist era, said Ms Alexeyeva, who was forced to emigrate to the US in the 1970s because of her anti-Soviet views.

After accepting the award, Mr Orlov said: “Sometimes we feel like we have to empty the sea with a spoon . . . This prize will give us strength.”

The Sakharov Prize has been awarded since 1988. Previous winners include Nelson Mandela, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi and former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan.

Separately, in his final address to the parliament as chairman of the European Council, Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt identified the bloc’s climate change commitments and the passage of the Lisbon Treaty as two of the major achievements of his country’s presidency. He described the outcome of Ireland’s second referendum as “a victory for Ireland . . . and a victory for European co-operation” and said the appointment of a new president of the council and a foreign policy chief would ensure co-ordination in EU external relations.