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Belarus opposition wins EU human rights award

October 22, 2020

The Sakharov Prize has been awarded to the Belarus opposition movement. Opposition supporters, led by exiled politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, have been protesting for months against President Alexander Lukashenko.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya at an opposition rally in Belarus
Image: Sergei Grits/AP Photo/picture-alliance

The European Parliament has awarded its Sakharov Prize for human rights to the Belarusian opposition movement and its leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

"They have on their side something that brute force can never defeat: the truth. Do not give up on your fight. We are by your side," European Parliament President David Sassoli said. "The major protests that have taken place in the streets of Belarus moved the world."

Mass demonstrations have rocked Belarus since President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in disputed elections in August. Every weekend, tens of thousands of protesters have been taking to the streets to demand his resignation and a fresh vote.

The EU does not recognize Lukashenko as current president and has said the elections were neither free nor fair. The embattled leader rejects allegations of vote manipulation, and instead blames the unrest in Belarus on foreign interference.

Sakharov Prize awarded: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks to DW

People of Belarus are 'not alone'

Belarusian opposition politician Valery Tsepkalo told DW the award sends an important message to the people of Belarus.

"It means that Belarus' people are not alone face to face with this dictatorial regime, that Belarus' people feel the support from the side of the European community and from the side of the global community — that the whole world is actually watching what is happening in Belarus. And the whole world has support (for) Belarus' democratic movement," he said.

"I hope that within a couple of months that this regime will be finished and the Belarusian people will get an opportunity to build a free, democratic, sovereign state."

Tsepkalo said it was clear why the European Parliament bestowed the prize on the Belarusian opposition. 

"They were fighting for some very important principles — the principle of democracy and the values that are very important to ... the whole European continent," he said.

'Time to listen to the voice of the people'

Security forces have detained thousands of people, including prominent opposition figures and journalists, since the protests began.

"We are also increasingly upset. Upset by the violent repercussions by Lukashenko," Sassoli said. "It is now time to listen to the voice of his people."

Tsikhanouskaya, who ran as Lukashenko's challenger in the elections, fled to EU member Lithuania after the vote. From exile, she has threatened to call a general strike if Lukashenko does not step down before October 25.

The Sakharov Prize was established in 1988. Named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, it is awarded every year to individuals or organizations that "have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy."

The award comes with €50,000 ($58,000) in prize money. Other finalists this year were environmental activists in Honduras, and Father Najeeb Michael, the Archbishop of Mosul in Iraq.

Last year's prize went to Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti, who is sentenced in China to life imprisonment for "separatism."

nm/msh (AFP, dpa)