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Sakharov Prize-Winners Say Russian Civil Society Needs EU's Help

Memorial's Oleg Orlov (left to right), Lyudmila Alekseyeva, and Sergei Kovalyov receive the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize in Strasbourg.
(RFE/RL) -- The European Parliament has given its top human rights award to the Russian group Memorial -- specifically naming three of its members, founder Sergei Kovalyov, director Oleg Orlov, and researcher Lyudmila Alekseyeva.

Memorial is a Russian nongovernmental organization dedicated to monitoring human rights abuses, past and present, in the Soviet Union and in today's post-Soviet states.

Today's ceremony in Strasbourg comes as the group continues to try to uncover the truth about the recent murder of one of its researchers in Chechnya, Natalya Estemirova.

In presenting the award, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek paid tribute to Estemirova, and said the 2009 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought also was meant to recognize the work of other defenders of human rights in Russia.

"With this prize we members of the European Parliament honor those who still among us fight for human rights," Buzek said. "But we also honor those who lost their lives in this valiant struggle. Natalya Estemirova should have been among us today."

Memorial's acceptance speech was delivered by Kovalyov, who told the European legislators that rights activists in Russia now face a "dramatic struggle" and dangers that often lead to a tragic reality.

Kovalyov said the prize belongs to those who have died, and he named Estemirova, as well as lawyer Stanislav Markelov, journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburova, ethnologist Nikolai Girenko, Farida Babayeva, "and many more."

Asking For Europe's Help

Memorial pulled out of Chechnya after Estemirova's killing in July. But Orlov announced the group would be resuming its work there "in full."

"We have made this difficult decision after consultations with our staff in the North Caucasus and a great number of Russian and international human rights organizations," Orlov added.

Orlov said Memorial sees the prize as a European Union offer of help that would help strengthen Russian civil society with added energy and credibility.

Orlov also presented the EU with petitions from a number of Russian civil organizations and human rights groups with requests for assistance on specific issues. He said the most important request was that EU officials put human rights issues on equal footing with energy, trade, and security issues during their talks with the Kremlin.

Orlov said another request was a call for the Council of Europe to insist that Russia make changes to any of its laws on civil society that do not adhere to international norms.

Alekseyeva told journalists she hopes that receiving the award will not expose Memorial activists to further dangers in Russia -- whether it be abduction and murder at the hands of criminal figures or harassment and imprisonment by local police.

Under Chechen Attack
-- In Court

The timing of the award bolsters the international reputation of Memorial at a time when criminal slander charges are being sought against Orlov for his outspoken criticism of Chechnya's Kremlin-backed president, Ramzan Kadyrov.

During the summer, Orlov accused Kadyrov of involvement in the killing of Estemirova -- a leading Memorial researcher who was abducted outside her home in Grozny on July 15 and found shot dead in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia later the same day.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has dismissed Orlov's allegations against Kadyrov as "primitive." In October, a Moscow court found both Orlov and Memorial guilty of slandering Chechnya's president. The court ordered Orlov and Memorial to pay about $2,350 in damages to Kadyrov.

The payment was far short of the $340,000 Kadyrov had sought in damages. Nevertheless, Memorial has appealed against the ruling and is waiting for a decision on its request for the court order to be withdrawn.

Meanwhile, Kadyrov has filed his own appeal -- demanding that the amount of compensatory damage payments be raised.

In late October, Kadyrov's lawyers also appealed to prosecutors in Moscow to initiate criminal charges of slander against Orlov. If a criminal case is initiated and Orlov is convicted, he would face a maximum sentence of three years in prison.