Jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has been chosen as the winner of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Parliament’s annual human rights prize, for his work to expose corruption and efforts to restrict freedoms in Russia.
Navalny was chosen by European lawmakers as the recipient of the award on October 20, the European People’s Party Group said, after being shortlisted along with a group of Afghan women and a jailed Bolivian opposition politician.
“He has campaigned consistently against the corruption of Vladimir Putin’s regime, and through his social-media accounts and political campaigns, Navalny has helped expose abuses and mobilize the support of millions of people across Russia. For this, he was poisoned and thrown in jail,” European Parliament President David Sassoli said in a statement announcing the award.
Navalny, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critics, was jailed in January after returning to Russia from Germany, where he was treated for a poisoning he said was ordered by the Kremlin, a charge Moscow denies.
The EU has imposed sanctions on Russian officials over Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment.
The 45-year-old lawyer was subsequently sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on a parole violation charge that he denounces as politically motivated.
“This is a very strong message from Free Europe to Putin. And delivered at exactly the right time, right place. No doubt Putin got the message, and is now raging mad in his bunker,” said political analyst Vladimir Milov.
Putin and other Russian authorities have ratcheted up pressure on Navalny, as well as his movement in recent months. The anti-corruption crusader has been designated by prison authorities as an extremist and a terrorist, he says.
Meanwhile in June, a court ruled the activities of his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) to be extremist.
Since then, many of his allies have had their homes raided or their freedom of movement restricted, prompting some to flee the country, while others have been jailed on dubious charges.
Last month, Russia opened a new criminal case against Navalny that could keep him in jail for a further decade.
“Putin calls Navalny a criminal blogger, but he is alone in this. Aleksei Navalny is a politician who fights for justice despite all the threats and assassination attempts,” Navalny’s team said on its Telegram channel. “And we are certain that Putin is not pleased to hear about this.”
Last year, the prize was awarded to Belarus’s democratic opposition, which staged weeks of protests against Alyaksandr Lukashenka following a disputed presidential election that the strongman claimed to have won, but which the opposition and the West said was heavily rigged in his favor.
Other previous winners of the 50,000 euro ($59,000) award, named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, include South African president Nelson Mandela, Venezuela’s democratic opposition and Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai.
With reporting by Rikard Jowziak