STRASBOURG, France - Belarusian opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich was awarded the Sakharov Prize on Thursday for his fight for democracy in the former Soviet republic, the European Parliament said.
The European Union's top human rights prize is named after Andrei Sakharov, one of the best known former Soviet dissidents. It is awarded 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.
"We feel that we are not alone. Europe is with us," Milinkevich told The Associated Press in Minsk.
"Today close to half a billion Europeans have reached out their hands in support, partnership and solidarity with Belarusians. And this is a victory of moral principles over principles of tyranny," he said.
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 for the prestigious award, which comes with a $63,000 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.
He said he would give the prize money to persecuted politicians and their families, including his one-time rival candidate for president Alexander Kozulin, who is in prison.
"I hope that the European Parliament's prize will allow me to more and more loudly defend those who are in Belarusian prisons today exclusively because of their desire for changes in the country."
The Belarus Foreign Ministry refused comment.
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, 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.
He 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.
The EU has slapped a visa ban on 35 officials linked to the Belarusian governing regime, including Lukashenko himself.
The Cuban women's movement Ladies in White, Nigerian human rights lawyer Hauwa Ibrahim and the Reporters Without Borders media organization were joint winners of last year's award, which was created in 1988 in honor of Sakharov, a Soviet nuclear physicist and human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.
Other past winners include former South African President Nelson Mandela and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Associated Press Writer Yuras Karmanau in Minsk contributed to the report.