Pavel Chikov, chairman of the Russian human rights organization Agora, was pleased and proud that the group won the Bergen-based Rafto Prize on Thursday for its “relentless work” to defend the right to a fair trial in Russia. He said he doesn’t dare accept the prize’s cash award, though, for fear Russian authorities will use it against them.
Agora is a federal association set up in 2005 by human rights organizations in the cities of Kazan, Cheboksary and Chita in Russia. It consists of 35 lawyers who handle cases connected to the Russian authorities’ abuse of power across country.
Rafto officials said Agora’s lawyers mostly defend activists, bloggers, journalists and non-governmental organizations against unlawful actions by government agencies. Agora also backs the news bureau openforum.ru, which reports on human rights abuses in Russia.
Rafto Prize officials, citing the “relentless and professional work” carried out by Agora, noted that Agora does not charge its clients for its services, with the lawyers getting paid only through donations to the organization. The Rafto Prize is meant to support their efforts, but Rafto officials noted that “the situation of human rights organizations is so precarious in Russia today that Agora is unable to accept the prize money awarded along with the Rafto Prize.”
The money amounts to USD 20,000, and Chikov acknowledged it would otherwise be greatly appreciated. He noted, however, that one of its own clients got into trouble for accepting a cash prize from the Helsinki Committee. It wouldn’t register as a so-called “foreign agent,” so the government fined it. Agora worked successfully to get the fine reversed, but won’t risk such persecution itself.
He was, however, grateful for the Rafto Prize, which has been awarded in earlier years to several people who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. “It’s very important for us,” Chikov, age 36, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “It gives us international attention and it will strengthen our case regarding Russian authorities.”
The Rafto Foundation, which backs the prize, was established after the death of Norwegian Professor Thorolf Rafto in gratitude for his work helping oppressed people. It consists of a diploma and the USD 20,000 cash award and will be presented to Agora and Chikov at a ceremony in Bergen on November 2.