Pussy Riot lead nominees for EU freedom prize
By Benjamin Fox
Jailed Russian punk band Pussy Riot are among nominees for the European Parliament's Sakharov prize after MEPs confirmed five candidates for the human rights award.
The candidates were discussed by MEPs on Tuesday (25 September) in a joint meeting of the foreign affairs, development, and human rights committees.
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Previous winners of the award, which was created by the Parliament in 1988 to honour Soviet nuclear scientist and Nobel peace prize winner Andrei Sakharov, include former South African President Nelson Mandela and Burmese democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. It was won by five Arab spring activists in 2011.
Proposing the group's nomination, which was backed by 46 MEPs, German Green deputy Werner Schultz praised the women for having "shone a light on and protested against an autocratic system with courage, creativity and inner force."
He added that they had managed to "attract international attention to a state which is moving further and further away from western values."
The punk group, famed for unannounced performances in well-known public places, hit the headlines in March when three of its members - Nadezhda Andreyevna Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina - were arrested and charged with hooliganism after protesting in a cathedral against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In August, they were sentenced to two years in a labour camp after a trial widely condemned as unfair and politically motivated by NGOs and foreign diplomats.
The EU parliament nomination met with bemusement in Moscow.
In a tersely worded statement, the Russian foreign ministry described the move as "a crude attempt to interfere with the work of an independent branch of the Russian government and an endeavour to question a decision of the court that delivered its verdict in due process."
Meanwhile, Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski and 82 other MEPs led support for Ales Bialiatski, a jailed freedom of speech activist in Belarus.
He founded the Viasna Human Rights Centre, an NGO which provides financial and legal assistance to political prisoners and their families.
Three imprisoned Rwandan opposition leaders - Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, Deogratias Mushayidi and Bernard Ntaganda - were nominated for their role in the country's reconciliation process, as was Joseph Francis, the founder of a legal centre for victims of Pakistan's blasphemy laws.
Nasrin Sotoudeh and Jafar Panahi, an Iranian lawyer and film-maker respectively, also made the shortlist.
The five nominees will be whittled down to three following a vote by the foreign affairs and development committees in October.
The winner will then be chosen by the parliament's political group leaders and invited to a ceremony in December.