Sakharov prize winner calls on EU to put more pressure on Russia | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 16.12.2009
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Sakharov prize winner calls on EU to put more pressure on Russia

One of the leaders of the human rights group Memorial used his acceptance speech for the Sakharov prize in the European Parliament to call on the European Union to put more pressure on Russia.

Sergei Kovalev

The Russian campaigner gave an impassioned speech

The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was presented Wednesday to Oleg Orlov, Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Sergei Kovalev of the Russian human rights organization Memorial.

President of the EU Parliament Jerzy Buzek handed over the award and the prize money of 50,000 euros ($73,000) at a ceremony in Strasbourg.

At the ceremony, Kovalev urged the EU to put pressure on Moscow to respect human rights.

"Europe's task is to not remain silent," he told the parliament, "But to always insist that Russia respects its obligations to human rights."

A man lights a candle in front of a portrait of Estemirova

The prize was awarded in honor of Natalya Estemirova

"To not call on Russia to do so would be interpreted as indulgence by the Russian authorities. That would be bad for Russia and for Europe as a whole," the 79-year-old former Soviet prisoner warned.

Activist murder

Memorial, which was founded in 1988, campaigns for the protection of human rights in Russia, Ukraine and the South Caucasus. It provides support for refugees and victims of discrimination.

The organization was forced to suspend its activities in the North Caucasus earlier this year after the murder of memorial employee Natalya Estemirova in Chechnya.

The 50-year-old Estemirova, a vocal critic of human rights abuses in Chechnya, was found dead in the Republic of Ingushetia in Russia's southern Caucasus region in July, after being kidnapped in neighboring Chechnya the same day.

She was a close associate of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated in 2006 in Moscow.

With his country facing international pressure to find those responsible, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev praised Estemirova for exposing uncomfortable truths.

But earlier this month a Russian court ordered Memorial to retract its accusation that Chechnya's controversial leader Ramzan Kadyrov was responsible for Estemirova's murder. Memorial was ordered to pay 70,000 rubles (1,500 euros, $2,300) in compensation for damaging the Chechen leader's honor and reputation.

European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek

Parliament president Buzek said the award was for all Russians

Proud president

President Buzek declared himself "proud" that the MEPs had decided to honor the Memorial group, as representatives of all human rights defenders in Russia.

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

The prize, named after Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov, the first leader of Memorial, was established in 1988 and is awarded to individuals or organizations who dedicate their lives to the defence of human rights and freedoms. Previous winners include Nelson Mandela, Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi and former United Nations chief Kofi Annan.

bk/AFP/dpa
Editor: Trinity Hartman

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