Václav Havel Human Rights Prize goes to jailed Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza

Evgenia Kara-Murza, centre, wife of Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, holds the the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize won by her husband, awarded at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg

The Václav Havel Human Rights Prize was awarded on Monday to Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian dissident who is currently in jail for speaking out against Putin’s war in Ukraine. Michael Žantovský is head of the Václav Havel Library, one of the founders of the award, and sits on the panel that chooses the laureate. I spoke to him after the winner was announced and asked how he felt about the awarding of the prize to the Russian dissident.

Vladimir Kara-Murza | Photo: Tomáš Roček,  Czech Radio

"I was very pleased by the outcome – I have known Vladimir Kara-Murza for some time and have nothing but respect and admiration for his courage and for his steadfastness in defending freedom and democracy in Russia, and also in protesting against Russian foreign policy and, in particular, Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.

"He is now in prison awaiting trial and has been charged with treason as of last week. He is facing perhaps 20 years in prison. The courage that it takes to face a murderous regime like Putin’s is mind-boggling – incredible."

You’re on the panel that chooses the winner – I imagine it must be quite difficult because all the candidates do amazing work. How do you choose? Why was the winner chosen over the other candidates?

Michael Žantovský | Photo: Lukáš Hurník,  Czech Radio

"We had three very worthy finalists for the prize this year and the outcome does not mean that we think of one of them as better or more deserving of the prize than the others. They all deserve respect and appreciation and the president of the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe said as much in his speech yesterday in Strasbourg.

"We chose Vladimir Kara-Murza because of the length and consistency of his record and also because of the personal commitment that he has shown in choosing to remain in Russia, fully aware of the dangers that he was facing. But as I said, we equally respect the other finalists."

You know Vladimir Kara-Murza personally, is that right?

"Yes, I’ve met him a number of times and he was our guest at the Václav Havel European Dialogues Conference in 2017. In his remarks at the conference he made a very important link between the domestic oppression by the Putin regime and its foreign policy, saying that if someone treats his own people like this, imagine how he would treat others. I think what is transpiring now is a very sad illustration of the truth of those words."

The Václav Havel Human Rights Prize – not to be confused with the New York City-based Human Rights Foundation's Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent – was founded in 2013 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Václav Havel Library and the Charta 77 Foundation. It is awarded every year in memory of Václav Havel, former President of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, to outstanding individuals or organisations who defend human rights in their countries. Previous winners include this year's joint-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Ales Bialiatski, Nadia Murad, a human rights activist who was kidnapped by and later escaped from ISIS in northern Iraq, and Ilham Tohti, a Chinese Uyghur university lecturer serving a life sentence since 2014 on separatism-related charges.