The Sakharov Prize 2009

, by Alessio Pisanò

The Sakharov Prize 2009

The Sakharov Prize 2009 of the European Parliament for the Freedom of Thought goes Russian. The organization “Memorial” for the defence of civil rights, from Moscow, has been awarded the prize directly by the EP President Jerzy Buzek in Strasbourg on October 22nd.

Memorial is the only international civil rights company that operates in a number of post-Soviet states. It focuses its activity on recording and publicising the Soviet Union’s totalitarian past, but also monitors human rights in post-Soviet states at the present time, for example in Chechnya. One of the main goals of the association is to promote and spread the truth about the historical past and perpetuate the memory of the victims of the political repression exercised by the totalitarian regimes. This is done, in particular, by keeping ’Books of Memory of Victims of Political Repressions’.

While awarding the prize, Mr Buzek has said: "By awarding this year’s prize to Oleg Orlov, Sergei Kovalev and Lyudmila Alexeyeva on behalf of Memorial and all other human rights defenders in Russia, 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."

Memorial activist Natalia Estemirova, who investigated murders and abductions in Chechnya, was herself abducted in Grozny and found dead in Ingushetia on 15 July 2009. It is suggested that her death is connected to her investigations on the government-backed militias in the country. In October 2007, she was awarded the Anna Politkovskaya Award by ’Reach All Women in War’ (RAW), a human rights organization supporting women human rights’ defenders in war and conflict.

The rule is simple: whosoever talks about human rights violations is threatened or killed.

The activists of the association have claimed several times for a concrete EU help in order to solve the civil rights problems in Russia. Even Sergei Kovalev, former Human Rights Ombudsman of the Russian Federation, described the situation as “terror by the state” and asked the EU to address the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg with a claim against Russia.

Even if it is said that regular human rights consultations with Russia have led to improvements in the situation, Stanislav Dmitrievsky, Editor-in-Chief of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society newspaper “Pravozashchita”, said via video-link that what we are facing is a vicious circle: “Russian authorities are lying, EU representatives know that they are not told the truth...Russia knows that they know...but nothing changes".

In the meantime people, and above all, journalists who are trying to report the truth are dying. The rule is simple: whosoever talks about human rights violations – for example in Chechnya, where during the wars of 1994-1996 and 1999-2008 thousands of people, mostly civilians, were killed – is threatened or killed. In its September 2009 report the Committee for the Protection of Journalists re-confirmed its declaration that Russia is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists. А wide-ranging investigation by the International Federation of Journalists into the deaths of journalists in Russia was published in June 2009. It was accompanied by an online database which documents over three hundred deaths and disappearances since 1993.

Too many times now, the EU has been called upon for help by Russian journalists and human rights activists. In comparison with the dramatic situation, the EP resolution of the 17th of September 2009 on the murder of human rights activists in Russia seems a weak palliative. Hundreds of resolutions are given off by the Parliament, but unfortunately most of them remain merely a list of intents without any concrete results. If the EU is satisfied with having shown all its sympathy to the Russians this resolution is enough. But if the EU really wants to act as an international peacemaker and defender of civil rights – as it is allegedly supposed to be - this resolution is of no relevance.

The EU’s new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – as established in the Treaty of Lisbon – and also Vice-President of the Commission, who will increase the impact, the coherence and the visibility of the EU’s external action, is a chance that cannot be missed to shed light on the Russian situation.

As an anticipation to that, the Sakharov Prize ceremony will take place in Strasbourg on 16 December.

- Sakharov Prize winners, source: google images

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