Sakharov Prize Comes Full Circle

The European Parliament has awarded the annual Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to the Russian human rights group, Memorial. The group, which lost one of its activists in an abduction-murder earlier this year, was awarded the prize in the name of all Russian rights defenders.

Russia has seen a wave of kidnap-murders of prominent journalists, activists and lawyers over the last decade. Despite fierce criticism from human rights activists and Western politicians, as well as pressure on Russian authorities to do more to identify and prosecute the crimes, perpetrators continue to act with near impunity.

In awarding this year’s prize, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek said, “We hope to contribute to ending the circle of fear and violence surrounding human rights defenders in the Russian Federation, and to advance our message that civil society activists everywhere must be free to exercise their most basic rights of freedom of thought and freedom of expression.”

In July, Memorial activist Natalya Estimerova was abducted in Chechnya and later found dead on the side of a road. Her murder came just weeks before two more Chechnya-based campaigners, husband and wife Alik Dzhabrailov and Zarema Sadulayeva, were found shot dead in the trunk of a car.

Memorial publicly accused Moscow-appointed Chechnyan President Ramzan Kadyrov of responsibility for ordering Estemirova’s murder, and of systemic support for widespread human rights abuses. Kadyrov fought back with a libel suit in the Russian courts. Earlier this month, court officials ordered Memorial to pay Kadyrov 70,000 rubles — about $2,400. Memorial is appealing the decision.

The string of deaths and lack of official support has left many Russian human rights defenders demoralized, Memorial chair Oleg Orlov said upon the prize announcement.

“Legal procedures often don’t allow us to defend people whose rights are trampled, and we lose heart. In that sense, this acknowledgment of our work, this solidarity with our work, helps our movement’s members carry out their jobs,” Orlov told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

The Sakharov Prize is named for Nobel Peace Prize-winning physicist and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, who was also head of Memorial in the 1980s. Past winners include Chinese civil rights activist Hu Jia, ethnic-Kurd Turkish politician Leyla Zana, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Algerian activist-journalist Salima Ghezali.

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