MEPs award Ukraine's 'brave people' and President Zelenskyy with top human rights prize

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By Jorge Liboreiro
With the Sakharov Prize, MEPs paid tribute to Ukraine's courageous resistance against Russia's invasion.
With the Sakharov Prize, MEPs paid tribute to Ukraine's courageous resistance against Russia's invasion.   -   Copyright  Francisco Seco/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

The "brave people" of Ukraine defending their country against Russia's relentless invasion have been awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Union's highest tribute to human rights defenders.

The award is given every year by the European Parliament and comes with a €50,000 endowment.

MEPs paid tribute to Ukrainians' daily fight to protect their country's independence and territorial integrity. 

"For the past nine months, the European Parliament and the world has seen Ukrainians heroically defending their country, their liberty, their homes, their families," European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said on Wednesday afternoon, while unveiling the winner.

"But the Ukrainian people are also risking their lives for Europe to safeguard the values that we all believe in: freedom, democracy, the rule of law."

"There is no one more deserving of this price," she noted.

On behalf of the Ukrainian population, the prize will be handed to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukraine's civil society organisations.

Zelenskyy is unlikely to travel to Strasbourg on December 14, the date of the official Sakharov ceremony. The president has not left the country since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion on 24 February.

Reacting to the news, Zelenskyy said he was "grateful".

"Ukrainians prove dedication to the values of freedom, democracy every day on the battlefield against the terrorist state of the [Russian Federation]," he wrote on his Twitter account.

The Sakharov Prize winner was selected by the parliament's conference of presidents, which Metsola chairs, among a pool of three finalists, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Colombia's Truth Commission.

"This award is for those Ukrainians fighting on the ground, for those who have been forced to flee, for those who have lost relatives and friends, for all those who stand up and fight for who and what they believe in," Metsola told MEPs.

"I know that the brave people of Ukraine will not give up and neither will we."

Even before the official finalists were announced, Ukraine appeared to be the frontrunner.

Ukraine's bid had been backed by the three main political groups, the European People's Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), and Renew Europe, giving it a clear edge over the other two candidates.

Since the start of the invasion, the hemicycle has been a vocal supporter of Ukraine, urging national governments to impose severe sanctions on the Kremlin and step up weapons deliveries.

In early March, mere days after Russian tanks crossed Ukraine's borders, Zelenskyy delivered a rousing virtual speech before the European Parliament, and made the case for his war-torn country to join the bloc.

"Do prove that you are with us. Do prove that you will not let us go. Do prove that you are indeed Europeans. And then, life will win over death and light will win over darkness. Glory be to Ukraine," Zelenskyy said then.

The Ukrainian president was hailed as a hero and received a standing ovation from lawmakers. The parliament's translator became emotional while interpreting Zelenskyy's words.

Ukraine's campaign paid off in late June when the country was granted EU candidate status.

Still, Zelenskyy keeps pleading with EU leaders to accelerate military support and micro-financial assistance, as Russian forces increase their attacks on civilian targets and key infrastructure.

Assange and Colombia

Besides Ukraine, the finalists for this year's Sakharov Prize included WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Colombia's Truth Commission.

Assange, who was nominated by a group of 41 MEPs, is an Australian activist who faces spying charges in the United States over a large trove of classified documents that his organisation leaked to the public more than a decade ago. The leaks exposed evidence of war crimes, human rights violations and torture.

From London's Belmarsh prison, Assange is battling an extradition order from the UK to the US. His lawyers say he is "being prosecuted and punished for his political opinions" and could be sentenced to up to 175 years behind bars if convicted in America.

The Truth Commission in Colombia, nominated by the Left group, was set up in 2016 as part of the peace agreement that brought to an end the conflict between the country's government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The commission was tasked with reconstructing the six decades of war, establishing the facts behind the human rights violations, and giving voice to the victims. The body's final report revealed that an estimated 450,000 people were killed between 1985 and 2018.

The Sakharov Prize was set up in 1988 to honour individuals and organisations defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. The annual award is named in honour of Soviet physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov, an advocate of civil liberties in the former Soviet Union.

The first recipients were Nelson Mandela and Anatoli Marchenko. Last year's prize was awarded to imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.