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Well-Known Russian Rights Activist Turns 80

Sergei Kovalyov
Sergei Kovalyov
MOSCOW -- Prominent Russian human rights defender and Soviet dissident Sergei Kovalyov is marking his 80th birthday today, RFE/RL's Russian Service reports.

Kovalyov told RFE/RL today that one of the happiest moments of his life was when his team of negotiators managed to persuade Chechen militant leader Shamil Basayev to release the civilians his men were holding hostage in 1995 in a hospital in the southern town of Budyonnovsk.

He added that one of the most disappointing moments in his life was when he realized how naive he and his fellow rights activists were to assume that universal human rights were a large enough force to impel Russia to evolve into a Western-style democracy.

Kovalyov was born in Ukraine's Sumy Oblast in 1930. In the 1960s, he was a founder of the underground human rights movement in the Soviet Union.

In 1975 Kovalyov was found guilty of anti-Soviet propaganda and sentenced to seven years in prison and three years in internal exile.

In the early 1990s, Kovalyov was elected as a deputy to the Russian Duma, a position he held until 2003.

He was also a major contributor to Article 2 of the Russian Constitution, titled "Rights and Liberties of Man and Citizen."

Kovalyov was a major opponent of Russian military involvement in Chechnya, and worked as a journalist in the Chechen capital, Grozny, during the First Chechen War.

In the mid-1990s he headed the Presidential Commission for Human Rights but resigned in 1996 after accusing President Boris Yeltsin of not living up to democratic principles.

In October, Kovalyov was among the winners of the European Union's top human rights award, the Sakharov Prize.