Belarusian opposition leader wins EU human rights award

The Associated Press

STRASBOURG, France Belarusian opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich was awarded the Sakharov Prize, the EU's top human rights award, on Thursday for his fight for democracy in the ex-Soviet republic, the European Parliament said.

The prize is named after Andrei Sakharov, one of the best known former Soviet dissidents. It is awarded by the EU assembly annually to a person or group judged to have made a particular achievement in the field of human rights, defense of international cooperation or promotion of democracy and the rule of law.

Milinkevich ran unsuccessfully against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in elections in March and became the symbol of Belarus' persecuted opposition. He was awarded the prize after two rounds of voting by leaders of the European Parliament's political groups, said parliament spokeswoman Marjory van den Broeke.

"Milinkevich is the face of the opposition in what is the last dictatorship in Europe. He is a brave man, who has been willing to put himself at risk in an attempt to bring about change in his country," said Hans-Gert Poettering, chairman of the center-right European People's Party, the largest political grouping in the EU assembly. "We sincerely hope that this award by the European Parliament will substantially help his cause."

Other nominees shortlisted for the prestigious award, which comes with a euro50,000 check, were people fighting for the release of hostages kidnapped in Colombia, represented by Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian presidential candidate held by the rebels while campaigning in the jungle during the 2002 race and still missing; and Ghassan Tueni, the father of a Lebanese anti-Syrian critic slain in a car bombing. The prize will be presented to Milinkevich - if he is allowed to leave Belarus - at a December session of the European Parliament.

The Cuban women's movement Ladies in White, Nigerian human rights lawyer Hauwa Ibrahim and the Reporters Without Borders media organization were joint winner of last year's award, which was created in 1988 in honor of Sahkarov, a Soviet nuclear physicist and human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.

Milinkevich, who was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in jail after running unsuccessfully against Lukashenko, led unprecedented demonstrations to protest the outcome of a vote denounced by the opposition and Western nations as a sham.

Lukashenko - who has ruled the nation since 1994 with an iron fist, earning him the nickname "Europe's last dictator" - won another five-year term in the March vote. He is accused of jailing his critics and quashing Belarus' independent media.

Milinkevich, a physicist and mathematician by profession, has been a compelling and unifying figure for an opposition that incorporates widely diverse forces ranging from pro-Westerners to Communists. He is widely regarded as principled and determined without being power-hungry.

Milinkevich visited the European Parliament twice earlier this year, asking the assembly for support in his fight against Lukashenko's totalitarian regime. He urged the EU to put hundreds of people responsible for electoral violations in the ex-Soviet republic on a travel blacklist and asked for cheaper EU visas so that Belarusian students could travel abroad on scholarships.