Belarus opposition leader wins EU human rights prize

By Andrew Rettman

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Belarus opposition leader Aleksander Milinkevich has won the European Parliament's annual human rights award, the Sakharov Prize, for his work in galvanising pro-democracy campaigners in a climate of fear under president Aleksander Lukashenko's regime.

Mr Milinkevich could not be contacted on Thursday (26 October), but fellow human rights campaigner Irina Krasvoskaya speaking to EUobserver by phone from Minsk said "I am so excited! Milinkevich is a brave man. But this award is for everybody fighting for freedom in Belarus - Kozulin and the 16 other political prisoners."

"It gives hope that one day there will be change in Belarus. This is a very good occasion to remind everybody that 10 million people are currently living under a dictatorship in the heart of Europe," she added, with Mr Milinkevich set to collect the ?50,000 award in Strasbourg on 13 December.

The 59-year old former physics professor spent 15 days in jail after leading protests against president Lukashenko during OSCE-deemed "fake" elections in March, but his fellow campaigner, Aleksander Kozulin, is facing five years in a labour camp for his role in the events.

Ms Krasovskaya, the president of the "Civil Initiative - We Remember" NGO, became an activist after her husband, a businessman who channelled funds to underground pro-democracy groups, vanished without trace in 1999 - one of at least six campaigners killed in recent years.

Fear plays a "huge" role in Belarusian society, Belarusian sociologist Oleg Manaev explained to EUobserver back in March, with three out of four respondents to the independently-funded scientist's survey saying they were "afraid" of the Lukashenko state.

The European Parliament's tribute comes shortly after EU member states extended their Belarus visa ban and asset freeze list from 31 to 35 names of Minsk officials in response to the hefty jail sentence imposed on Mr Kozulin.

Bratislava-based NGO Pontis says local elections on 14 January could be the next flashpoint on the Belarus political agenda, but criticised the EU for recently dropping plans to impose mini-trade sanctions against Minsk, saying "this will leave the EU without any leverage on Belarus."

Mr Milinkevich had been nominated for the prize along with Lebanese journalist and diplomat Ghassan Tueni and Colombian anti-corruption activist Ingrid Betancourt. Past winners include: South Africa's Nelson Mandela and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.