The Empty Chair for Alexei Navalnyj

David Sassoli 
Former President of the European Parliament

David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament, passed away on 11 January 2022. We publish one of the last messages he left us. We remember him as a convinced federalist and a champion of European democracy. [Editor’s Note]

There is an empty chair in the European Parliament. Sometimes it hosts a photo, sometimes a flag. Only a few times does it manage to welcome the person it is intended for. That chair often remains empty because in some parts of the world the heroines and heroes advocating democratic values are forced into physical isolation, imprisonment, segregation. That chair is the chair of the Sakharov Prize, which annually celebrates those who defend human rights and fundamental freedoms with extraordinary determination and action. Today the award goes to Alexei Navalnyj, a member of the Russian opposition and anti-corruption activist.

The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was awarded for the first time in 1988 to Nelson Mandela (in that year the award also went, posthumously, to the Russian dissident Anatoly Marchenko). On that occasion, Mandela was unable to receive it because he was imprisoned for his resistance to the South African segregationist regime. This year, also Navalnyj, who is a political prisoner, will not be in a position to attend the ceremony. In his place there will be his daughter Daria Navalnaya, to whom I will deliver the prize.

Alexei Navalny is an example of exceptional courage. His persistent campaign against the corruption of Vladimir Putin's regime testifies to a strenuous defense of democratic values. Through his social media accounts and political campaigns, he has contributed to denouncing the abuses within the system, managing to activate millions of people throughout Russia. The forces resisting Putin's regime have mobilized around him.

In August 2020, Navalny was poisoned and collapsed aboard a plane that departed from Siberia and headed for Moscow. He spent several months convalescing in Berlin only to be arrested upon his return to Moscow in January 2021. He is currently serving a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence at a high-security penal colony. Navalny started a long hunger strike at the end of March 2021 to protest the lack of access to medical care. In June 2021, a Russian court classified Alexei Navalny's regional offices and his Anti-Corruption Foundation as extremist and illegal. On behalf of the European Parliament, I call for his immediate and unconditional release.

Last year the Sakharov Prize was awarded to the Belarusian opposition for its defense of pluralism and the rule of law in the country, demonstrating the closeness to the demands of freedom of that people. Given the situation we are currently experiencing, Sakharov Prize's assignment to Navalny has an additional symbolic value. Amid the tensions with Russia and the migratory crisis on the border between Poland and Belarus, the European Parliament expresses its attention and concern towards that geographical area, so close to our borders and yet tormented by the violation of democratic values. Values in which we believe and to which we want to commit ourselves.

Certain principles, which are universal, remain a priority for us. Indeed, it should be remembered that human rights are integrated into the EU treaties and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, as well as into the EU's external relations policies, including the Action Plan for Human Rights and Democracy 2020-2024. In its relations with third countries, the Union's objective is to promote democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, principles of equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law.

Indeed, the Prize represents for us a flagship initiative within the framework of our commitment to human rights, rights which are at the heart of our common values. It becomes an instrument of exchange and support given that the Prize network itself allows the winners to get in touch and establish relationships with each other, because the battle for the respect of human rights must be a universal battle.

Let me also say a word for this year's finalists, the Afghan women, represented by eleven human rights activists, who received a special mention. The European Parliament does not forget them and does not forget their very difficult situation and their struggle for not losing the achievements strenuously attained in the last twenty years.

Finally, I want to remind that several Sakharov Prize winners, including Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, were subsequently also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The winners, but also the finalists, of the Sakharov Prize represent high examples of political and civic struggle. They are and have been a constant source of inspiration, not just for their communities. This occasion must serve to highlight Navalny's situation and his unjust detention. And it must continue to remind us that rights and freedoms must always be kept alive in the practice of democratic life. To give dignity to their universality and, therefore, to every citizen.

CESI
Centro Studi sul Federalismo

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