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Russian opposition activist wins Nemtsov Prize

Irina Filatova
June 20, 2018

Opposition activist Nadezhda Mityushkina has won this year's Boris Nemtsov Prize, named after the murdered Kremlin critic. She told DW the persecution of political dissidents in Russia is growing worse by the week.

Preisverleihung des Boris Nemzow - Preises in Bonn
Image: DW/M.Bushuev

Nadezhda Mityushkina doesn't like to talk about herself. Speaking to DW ahead of the Boris Nemtsov Prize ceremony in Bonn on Wednesday evening, she instead focused on the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia. 

Mityushkina was a close ally of Boris Nemtsov and a member of Solidarity, the Russian opposition movement he founded. Nemtsov was shot dead near the Kremlin in February 2015. Mityushkina was picked from five shortlisted candidates by the Council of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, established by the politician's daughter, DW reporter and anchor Zhanna Nemtsova. This is the third time the Boris Nemtsov Prize has been awarded.

Nemtsov's right hand

Mityushkina became an executive director of Solidarity in 2009, a year after it was founded by Nemtsov and former world chess champion turned politician Garry Kasparov. Since then she has coordinated the distribution of Nemtsov's reports, in which he condemned corruption and abuse of powers by Russian authorities and helped organize street protests.

Nemtsov memorial in St. Petersburg
Nemtsov was murdered in Moscow in 2015Image: DW/W. Isotov

The rally staged by Solidarity in December 2011 drew several thousand people. The event kick-started an unprecedented wave of street protests across Russia, particularly following controversial parliamentary elections that critics say were manipulated. In 2014, Mityushkina and Nemtsov were sentenced to 10 days of administrative arrest after being detained at one of the rallies.

Following Nemtsov's death, Mityushkina helped to keep the Solidarity movement alive. "We were taking to the streets before 2011, when a maximum of 1,000 people were attending the rallies, and we will keep doing that," she said, adding that one can't "turn a blind eye to" the current situation in the country, which she described as "very sad."

"The number of political prisoners grows every week," she said.

German parliamentarian Gyde Jensen, who spoke at the award ceremony, praised Mityushkina for her engagement in to the fight for human rights in Russia. "Nadezhda Mityushkina stands up for democratic values," Jensen said, noting that she had been maintaining an unofficial memorial to Nemtsov on the Big Moskvoretskii Bridge where the politician was killed, despite numerous efforts by the Moscow authorities to demolish it.

Political persecution in Chechnya

One of the nominees shortlisted for the 2018 Nemtsov Prize, Oyub Titiyev, is widely considered a political prisoner. He chairs a branch of the Memorial human rights center in Chechnya. In January, he was detained on charges of drug possession after police said they had found roughly 200 grams of marijuana in his car.

Oyub Titiyev in prison
Titiyev faces up to 10 years in prisonImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Sadulayev

For months before his arrest, Titiyev had been investigating the disappearance of 27 Chechen residents who had been detained for alleged extremism and reportedly executed without trial. Titiyev faces up to 10 years in prison. Other human rights activists believe that the case against him is politically motivated, since Chechen authorities are trying to push Memorial, an independent nongovernmental organization that investigates political repression in the Soviet Union and modern Russia, out of the republic. 

"The Chechen authorities have completely tightened the screws. Memorial remained the last independent human rights organization in the republic," Alexander Cherkasov, a board member of Memorial who came to ceremony on Titiyev's behalf, told DW. He said that it is a common practice for Chechen law enforcement officials to plant drugs on government critics, adding that Titiyev is the third activist arrested on such charges.

But while arrests of human rights activists are well-known cases, other people are persecuted simply for trying to publicly complain about the authorities. "People get caught and sometimes tortured in order for them to confess," Cherkasov said.

Other nominees

Titiyev is not the only one on the shortlist of nominees who is believed to be persecuted for political reasons. His colleague Yuriy Dmitriyev, who chairs the Memorial branch in Karelia, also faces a prison term on child pornography charges. His supporters believe that he fell into disgrace for his longstanding work to investigate cases of repression by former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

Yuri Dmitriyev in court
Dmitriyev has long investigated repression in the Soviet Union under StalinImage: picture-alliance/TASS/I. Podgorny

Other names on the shortlist for this year's Nemtsov Prize include opposition politician and Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who was barred from the Russian presidential election earlier this year, and 20-year old Egor Chernyuk, the youngest coordinator of Navalny's presidential campaign.

Mityushkina and four other candidates were shortlisted for the award during an online public vote organized by Russia's liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta. This year's finalists were chosen from 40 nominees, including Russian film director Kirill Serebrennikov, a Kremlin critic arrested on charges of embezzling of state funds, journalist and human rights activist Zoya Svetova, and journalist and LGBT-activist Ali Feruz, who fled Uzbekistan 10 years ago after being tortured in detention and later faced deportation from Russia.