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Russian NGO awarded Sakharov human rights prize

The Russian human rights organization Memorial received the 2009 Sakharov Prize of Freedom of Thought at a ceremony in Strasbourg on Wednesday. Russian activists Oleg Orlov, Sergei Kovalev and Ludmila Alekseeva were at the ceremony to collect the prize on behalf of Memorial and Russian human rights activists in general. The European Parliament has awarded the Sakharov Prize since 1988. Named after the dissident Soviet scientist, Andrei Dmitrovich Sakharov, one of the founders of Memorial, the prize is presented to people who have dedicated their lives to defending human rights and mutual understanding. The murder in Chechnya in July of Natalia Estemirova, a Memorial colleague of Oleg Orlov and Sergei Kovalev, brought worldwide attention to the risks human rights defenders face in Russia, especially in the North Caucasus. Since Natalia Estemirova's murder, Memorial has suspended its work in Chechnya. The authorities in Chechnya have continued to intimidate and persecute human rights activists and those who seek justice for abuses. Several have been forced to leave Russia due to threats on their lives. In November, a letter sent by more than 80 Russian human rights organizations urged Memorial to return to Chechnya and pledged to support Memorial in whatever way they could. Several of these organizations have joined together to form a Monitoring Mission in Chechnya and recently began to work in the Chechen Republic. In a joint statement issued on Wednesday, Amnesty International, Civil Rights Defenders, FIDH, Memorial, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Moscow Helsinki Group said that they will work jointly with Russian and other international human rights organizations to monitor the situation in Chechnya. The statement said: "We will continue our work to end human rights violations in the republic and ensure that perpetrators are held accountable.  People in Chechnya must not be left without access to justice and redress." Sergei Kovalev, often called the "conscience of Russia", got involved in human rights in the late 1960s. He was a close ally and friend of Andrei Sakharov. He was sent to Soviet prison camps in 1974 and then later sent into internal exile for publicizing the cases of human rights prisoners. Kovalev was a founding member of the first Moscow Amnesty International group. Ludmila Alekseeva joined the Russian dissident community during the 1960s. She campaigned for fair trials of the arrested dissidents and their objective coverage in the media. After over 10 years living overseas, in 1996 she returned to Russia and became a head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights organization. "This prize is an honour for me because it is in the name of Andrei Dmitrovich Sakharov, the spiritual leader of the human rights movement in Russia and simply a great authority in the field of defending human rights," Alekseeva told Amnesty International when the prize was announced in October. That same month Oleg Orlov, the chairperson of the Human Rights Centre Memorial told Amnesty International: "The Sakharov prize is an important recognition for our work. We are striving to achieve concrete results in the face of so much lawlessness. Sometimes, when we manage to save only the lives of a few people, it may not seem much and our colleagues may feel discouraged. Because of this such recognition is heartening." Click here to read the full statement issued by Amnesty International and a number of other human rights organizations as Memorial received the 2009 Sakharov Prize of Freedom of Thought.