Memorial Returns to Chechnya
Russian human rights group Memorial has resumed its activities in Chechnya, the director of the group said today at a press conference after the Sakharov Prize ceremony in the Parliament of Europe.
Five months ago the human rights community in Russia and beyond lost a friend and colleague, Natalya Estemirova, Memorial’s lead researcher in Chechnya. After her murder on July 15, 2009, Memorial suspended its work in Chechnya. Since that time, the pro-Moscow puppet authorities in Chechnya have continued to intimidate and persecute human rights defenders and those who seek justice for abuses; several were forced to leave Chechnya and Russia due to threats to their lives.
As a result, victims of human rights violations in Chechnya have nowhere to turn. There continue to be reports of human rights abuses such as enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, and extrajudicial executions. Houses of families of alleged fighters are being burnt down. The perpetrators of such crimes continue to enjoy impunity.
The vacuum of human rights monitoring and reporting in this situation is significant and painful. In December, 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 Chechnya.
Today, 16 December 2009, Memorial, represented by Oleg Orlov and Sergei Kovalev, as well as Lyudmila Alekseeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of thought, awarded by the European Parliament. They said, they can only be saddened that their friend and colleague Natalya Estemirova is no longer alive to receive this honour.
President of the EU Parliament Jerzy Buzek handed over the award and the prize money of 50,000 euros ($73,000) at a ceremony in Strasbourg.
At the ceremony, Kovalev urged the EU to put pressure on Moscow to respect human rights. “Europe’s task is to not remain silent,” he told the parliament, “But to always insist that Russia respects its obligations to human rights. To not call on Russia to do so would be interpreted as indulgence by the Russian authorities. That would be bad for Russia and for Europe as a whole,” the 79-year-old former Soviet prisoner warned.
Oleg Orlov said: “We have made this difficult decision after consultations with our staff in the North Caucasus and a great number of Russian and international human rights organizations.” And he added that Memorial sees the prize as a European Union offer of help that would help strengthen Russian civil society with added energy and credibility.
Sergei Kovalev said: “This prize is theirs by right. The first is Natalya Estemirova, human rights defender and fellow member of Memorial, shot in Chechnya. Among others I should also mention Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer; Anna Politkovskaya and Anastasia Baburova, journalists, killed in Moscow; Nikolai Girenko, an ethnologist, shot in St-Petersburg; Farid Babaev, killed in Dagestan and many others. Sadly this list could go on. Please rise to honor the memory of these people.”
Let’s remind that in his Nobel Prize speech, Andrei Sakharov had said “Today we must fight for every individual person separately against injustice and the violation of human rights. Much of our future depends on this.” And now, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, FIDH, Memorial, Civil Rights Defenders and Moscow Helsinki group will work jointly with Russian and other international human rights organizations to monitor the situation in Chechnya. They consider monitoring and reporting on human rights violations in Chechnya as their common responsibility. They will continue their work to end human rights violations in the country and ensure that perpetrators are held accountable.