Belarus opposition wins EU parliament rights award

Brussels (AFP) –


The European Parliament on Thursday awarded the Sakharov Prize for human rights to the movement opposing President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, led by the exiled Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

"It is an honour to announce that the women and men of the democratic opposition in Belarus are the 2020 Sakharov Prize laureates," tweeted European Parliament President David Sassoli.

"They have on their side something that brute force can never defeat: the truth. Do not give up on your fight. We are by your side."

The choice is likely to meet with disapproval of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who staunchly supports his embattled Belarusian counterpart. Russia already denounced the choice of the 2018 winner, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was jailed at the time.

Belarus has been gripped by unprecedented protests since Lukashenko claimed victory in an August election over Tikhanovskaya.

Every Sunday, tens of thousands of Belarusians, despite the risk of arrest and the threat of live ammunition, take to the streets to oppose Europe's longest serving leader.

Waving white-red-and-white banners they march peacefully, despite a daunting police presence, beatings and the use of water cannons and anti-riot grenades.

Tikhanovskaya, who was granted shelter in EU member Lithuania after the vote, has called on Lukashenko to quit power before October 25, warning he would otherwise face a crippling general strike.

- Double-edged sword -

The protest movement is largely unconnected with traditional political life and is especially led by women and young people who have no recollection of the Soviet era.

Almost all the figures linked to Tikhanovskaya -- or the opposition Coordination Council set up to begin a transition of power -- have been imprisoned, placed under house arrest or forced into exile.

Supported by Putin, Lukashenko has ruled out any major concessions, promising only a vague constitutional reform to get out of the crisis and staged a sham of a dialogue with opponents by visiting them in prison.

Tikhanovskaya meanwhile has won the support of the EU's biggest players, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Europe's support is a double-edged sword for the opposition, as Moscow and Minsk have constantly denounced a Western conspiracy.

The Sakharov Prize, set up in 1988 and named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, is awarded every year to individuals or organisations that "have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy".

Last year's award of the 50,000 euro ($58,000) prize went to Uighur intellectual Ilham Tohti, who is sentenced in China to life imprisonment for "separatism".

The prize is to be handed out at a plenary session of parliament on December 16.

The other finalists for the prize were environmental activists in Honduras, including the murdered Berta Cáceres, and Father Najeeb Michael, the Archbishop of Mosul in Iraq.