Yourexcellencies, dear Rafto laureates, ladies and gentlemen — dear friends!

These aretroubled times for the Russian civil society.

To be sure ,never before has Russia seen such a multitude of competent organisationsworking to protect and promote human rights, the environment, culture and otherfundamental values. Recently, however, non-governmental organisations have beensingled out by the authorities as an obstruction to Russia’s furtherdevelopment. Over the last couple of years, hundreds of organisations have beensubjected to harsh inspections.

Agora’s primary activityis to offer free legal aid to victims of abuse by state authorities and officials

In thiscontext, the case of this year’s Rafto laureate, Agora, is doubly important.Established in 2005, they are an example of a new generation of human rightsorganisations that have emerged in contemporary Russia.

They are based in theregional centre Kazan and are connected to a network of organisation throughoutthe world’s largest country. They are a professional organisation of people whouse their law education to defend citizens and organisations that have sufferedabuse from the authorities.

«FARLIG MANN»: Juristnettverket Agora, her representert ved leder Pavel Chikov, er vinnerne av årets Raftopris. Russlands president Vladimir Putin anser menneskerettigehtsadvokatene som en trussel.
Odd Nerbø

As a resultof this, they have themselves been subjected to attacks by both local andfederal authorities. This summer, Agora was labelled a ‘foreign agent’ by theRussian Department of Justice because they receive financial support from othercountries and engage in what the authorities consider to be political activity.The new status obliges them to submit more bureaucraticpaperwork, but most importantly: it stigmatises them as enemies of the verysame people they work to protect.

Agora’sprimary activity is to offer free legal aid to victims of abuse by stateauthorities and officials, something they do with great efficiency and professionalism.This work is important not only for the individuals they defend, but also forthe development of a free and fair court system in Russia. The current Russianlegal system was established only twenty years ago, and is still developing.

In additionto this, Agora uses its regional network to document and report human rightsabuses throughout Russia. These include abuses by police, unhuman conditions inthe notorious Russian army, and racism. In recent years they have publishedthorough reports on the situation for sexual minorities in Russia and onattempts to limit the free use of the Internet.

Thecombination of all these activities makes them a well-deserving recipient ofthis year’s Rafto Prize.

Russia isour neighbour , but a country more Norwegians will know from its greatliterature, than from travels. Few Norwegians have visited Russia, but we haveall read the classics: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov. Or — if we haven’t — weare too ashamed to admit it. One of the reasons why Russian literature becameso important was because of the great care with which Russian writers spoke upfor ordinary people when they were suppressed by Russia’s rulers.

Theprototype of such an ordinary man in Russian literature is Akakii Akakievichfrom Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat . Asimple civil servant, Akakii Akakievich struggles to make ends meet. One day herealises that his overcoat is too worn out to protect him against the upcoming coldwinter winds in his native Saint Petersburg. He spends several months saving upfor a new one. Finally, he collects it from the tailor, only to have it stolenfrom him later the same day. The devastated Akakii Akakievich pleads help from a Prominent Person in the Saint Petersburg bureaucracy. However, he is told off in themost humiliating way and returns home, where he collapses on his coach and dies.

Gogol’ssympathy clearly rests with the small man who suffers abuse from the Russianstate apparatus. By displaying Akakii Akakievich’s grim fate, Gogol stands as abrilliant example of the Russian tradition according to which writers were seenas more than just writers. In a country without a functioning legal system, thejob to defend ordinary Russians was left to the writers.

This wasthe situation in the Russian empire and its successor state, the Soviet Union.The post-Soviet Russia has a new legal system, and the job of Agora and otherlawyers is to liberate Russian writers from this heavy moral duty to protectordinary Russians. I am a great admirer of Russian literature, but I believe thatPavel Chikov, Irina Khrunova, Damir Gainutdinov and their lawyer colleagues aremore competent than writers when it comes to efficiently protecting the rightsof Russians.

In thesetroubled times for Russian society, the Rafto foundation wants to highlight thevery positive contribution made by Agora towards the promotion of basic humanrights such as the right to a fair trial.

Mr PavelChikov, please accept our recognition for the work you and your organisation,Agora, have done for the promotion of rule of law and democracy in Russia. Icall on you to come to the podium and receive the 2014 Thorolf Rafto Prize forHuman Rights.