Ukrainian people accept Sakharov human rights prize as Zelenskyy addresses European Parliament

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By Maria Psara
Ukrainian elected politicians & civil society members accept the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought Award, the EU’s top human rights prize, Dec. 14, 2022 in Strasbourg.
Ukrainian elected politicians & civil society members accept the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought Award, the EU’s top human rights prize, Dec. 14, 2022 in Strasbourg.   -   Copyright  Jean-Francois Badias/AP.

The European Parliament's top human rights award was on Wednesday handed to its recipient, the Ukrainian people. 

A handful of Ukrainian politicians and members of civil society were present at the European Parliament in Strasbourg to accept the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joined by videoconference to lead the hemicycle into a minute of silence in memory of all Ukrainians that have lost their lives because of the war.

MEPs awarded the prize to the Ukrainian people back in October, paying tribute to their daily fight to protect their country's independence and territorial integrity. 

"We must act now, not waiting for the war to end, to bring to justice all those who unleashed it and to prevent any repetition of aggression. This will be the most effective protection of freedom, human rights, the rule of law and other common values, which are embodied in particular by this award by the European Parliament," he also told MEPs. 

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola praised "the inspiring resistance of ordinary citizens making the ultimate sacrifice to delay a column of tanks, senior citizens standing up to face Russian troops with nothing but pride as weapons, brave women forced to give birth in underground metro stations."

"To these people, the message from Europe has been clear: we stand with Ukraine, we won't look away."

Ivan Fedorov, the Mayor of Melitopol who made the trip to Strasbourg, told Euronews that Russia's efforts to influence the people of Ukraine failed.

"Russia tried to put Russian propaganda in the heads of citizens in the occupied territories and said: Russia is here forever. The EU and all European institutions have forgotten you. You will never be liberated," Fedorov said.

"And such an award as the Sakharov prize, such attention that now step-by-step is given to our citizens by the European Union, it shows to our citizens that nobody has forgotten Ukrainians."

No competition

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.

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

Apart from 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.