Navalny wins EU's Sakharov freedom award

BrusselsUpdated: Oct 20, 2021, 10:59 PM IST

Alexei Navalny (file photo) Photograph:(AFP)

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Navalny's movement in Russia has been banned as "extremist" by the Kremlin and some of his allies have been forced to leave Russia under pressure from authorities. 

The European Parliament on Wednesday gave its Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought -- the EU's top human rights award -- to jailed Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

The anti-corruption campaigner, who last year survived a poisoning attack he blames on the Kremlin, is Russian President Vladimir Putin's best-known domestic opponent. 

After returning to Russia in January from Germany, where he was treated for the attack, he was convicted on old embezzlement charges and is now imprisoned in a penal colony outside Moscow, but continues to needle Putin.

His winning the Sakharov Prize, backed by parliament's main political groups, will further embitter ties between the Europe Union and Russia that have been at a low since the annexation of Crimea by Moscow in 2014.

Navalny "has shown great courage in his attempts to restore the freedom of choice to the Russian people," said European Parliament vice president Heidi Hautala, announcing the prize.

"For many years he has fought for human rights and fundamental freedom in his country. This is costing his freedom and nearly his life," she added in a plenary session in the French city of Strasbourg.

Navalny, 45, was nominated but passed over for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

His movement in Russia has been banned as "extremist" by the Kremlin and some of his allies have been forced to leave Russia under pressure from authorities. 

The group, called the Anti Corruption Foundation, called the prize a victory for all supporters of "truth".

"The Sakharov Price is, of course, an award for you all. To all the people who are not indifferent, who even in the darkest of times are not afraid to speak the truth," it said on Twitter.

The European Parliament's biggest grouping, the conservative EPP group, called on Putin "to free Alexei Navalny. Europe calls for his -- and all other political prisoners' -- freedom".

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg hailed the award and said it was recognition of Navalny's "important role... in supporting democratic values and being a strong voice in Russia".

He also called for Navalny's unconditional release from prison and for an international investigation of his poisoning.

Navalny, a father-of-two, has remained upbeat and still communicates with supporters from behind bars via social media accounts.

"Don't worry, I'll be released no later than spring 2051," he wrote on Instagram last month.

In winter 2011-2012, Navalny led the first mass protests against Putin's rule that attracted tens of thousands and were sparked by widespread claims of vote-rigging in parliamentary elections.

He upped the ante in 2013 by running for Moscow mayor, finishing second to a Putin ally.

The following year, he was found guilty on fraud charges in a case Europe's rights court deemed "arbitrary" and Navalny said was contrived to bar him from future elections. 

In 2018, he was barred from the vote that handed Putin his fourth presidential term.

The Sakharov Prize, set up in 1988 and named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, is awarded every year to those fighting for human rights or democracy.

Last year, the 50,000-euro ($58,000) prize went to the movement opposing President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, a close ally of Putin.

This year, the prize will be handed out in a ceremony in a plenary session of the European Parliament on December 15 in Strasbourg.

The other finalists for the 2021 prize were a group of Afghan women who fought for women's rights in now Taliban-run Afghanistan, and Jeanine Anez, a former head of state in Bolivia who is jailed on charges of leading a coup in 2019.