Russian group awarded rights award
Memorial recognised for its fight for human rights amid dangerous conditions.
Last Modified: 16 Dec 2009 17:29
Human rights activist and journalist Natalia Estemirova was killed in July 2009 [EPA]

Three Russian activists critical of the Kremlin have received the EU's top human rights award, in recognition of the dangers they face in carrying out their work.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Sergei Kovalyov and Oleg Orlov from human rights group Memorial were awarded the Sakharov Prize, which comes with a $72,850 honorarium, at a European parliament ceremony in Strasbourg, France.

Jerzy Buzek, the European Parliament president, said despite the pride he felt for Memorial he also felt "bitterness that it is necessary to award this kind of prize in Europe".

Memorial was founded two decades ago to remember the victims of Stalinist oppression but expanded to cover a broad array of civil-society development issues.

On Wednesday the group announced the resumption of its operations in Chechnya.

Memorial suspended its activities in the region in July following the murder of Natalya Estemirova, a researcher for the human rights group.

Orlov said: "We state today that we are resuming our activities in full volume on the territory of Chechnya. This uneasy decision was made as a result of consultations with our staff in the North Caucasus as well as with a large group of Russian and international human rights organisations".

Estemirova was abducted outside her home in Grozny, Chechnya's capital, on July 15 and found shot dead in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia later the same day.

Her murder was followed three weeks later by the killings of Zarema Sadulayeva and her husband, Alik Dzhabrailov, who both worked for a Chechen charity.

'Freedom and democracy'

Kovalyov said "it is Europe's duty not to remain silent" in the face of Russian human rights abuses.

Joseph Daul, the chairman of the Christian Democrat EPP, the biggest group in the legislature, said: "I hope that this prize will encourage them to continue the fight for what we all believe in - freedom and democracy."

Alexeyeva, 82, and Kovalyov, 79, were both leading Soviet dissidents and contemporaries of the late Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet dissident for whom the prize is named.

They continue to lead the fight for democracy and human rights in Russia.

The Sakharov Prize has been awarded since 1988, and previous winners include Nelson Mandela, a former South African president,  Xanana Gusmao, leader of East Timorese resistance, and Oswaldo Paya, a Cuban dissident.

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