(Moscow) - The European Parliament has awarded its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Memorial, a leading Russian human rights organization and to the prominent human rights activists Ludmilla Alekseeva, Sergei Kovalev, and Oleg Orlov, and other Russian human rights defenders, Human Rights Watch said today.
"Our colleagues at Memorial and these activists have been right in the center of the enormously difficult and incredibly dangerous fight to protect human rights in Russia," said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia division executive director. "This honor is enormously well deserved and we extend our warmest congratulations." The European Parliament established the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1988 in honor of the Soviet physicist, dissident, and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. The European Parliament presents the award every year to individuals or organizations that have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy. The 2009 award, marking the 20th anniversary of Andrei Sakharov's death, will be presented on December 16 in Strasbourg.
The award this year to Memorial, Kovalev, Alekseeva, and Orlov, highlights their unwavering commitment and energy in confronting ongoing, serious human rights violations in Russia. It also highlights their fortitude in the face of the murder of their colleague, Natalia Estemirova, who, with Kovalev, was a finalist for the Sakharov prize in 2004. Estemirova, a leading researcher with the Memorial Human Rights Center's office in Grozny, Chechnya, was abducted on July 15, 2009. Her body was found with gunshot wounds later that day. The murder appeared to be clearly connected to her work uncovering human rights violations in Chechnya.
"Memorial and this group of activists have set the standard for human rights work in Russia," Cartner said. "We are inspired by their fearlessness, vision, and dedication to justice."
Ludmila Alekseeva, together with Andrei Sakharov and others, founded the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976, to monitor the Soviet Union's compliance with the Helsinki Final Act. She is chairwoman of the group.
Sergei Kovalev founded the first Soviet human rights organization, the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR, in 1969; he was a founder of Memorial and continues to serve on the board.
Oleg Orlov is the chairman of the board of the Memorial Human Rights Center board and is a leading expert on human rights in armed conflict.