The Sakharov Prize was established by the Parliament in December 1988 as a means of honouring "individuals or organisations who dedicate their lives to the defence of human rights and freedoms, particularly the right to free expression".
Among this year's finalists, chosen at a joint meeting of the EU assembly's foreign affairs and development committees, are Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Oleg Orlov and Sergei Kovalev, representing Memorial and "all other human rights defenders in Russia".
A Polish European People's Party source last week told EurActiv that the Memorial activists - nominated by Polish EPP MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski and 59 others - had a "great chance" of getting the prize in December, a view confirmed by other parliamentary pundits (EurActiv 30/09/09).
Indeed, the entire Greens/European Free Alliance group is also backing Memorial, which could end up receiving up to 114 votes should the group vote alongside Saryusz-Wolski's party.
MEPs said the three Memorial activists had been chosen because the NGO "promotes the truth about the political repression of the Soviet Union and fights against current human rights abuses in post-Soviet states to ensure their democratic future".
The other short-listed candidates are Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian gynaecologist, and Dawit Isaak, a Swedish journalist of Eritrean origin.
Dr. Abuelaish, a resident of Jabila, the largest refugee camp on the Gaza Strip, lost his three daughters in an attack last January but "continues to fight for peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples and tirelessly strives to build bridges between the two war-torn and weary communities," said MEPs.
Isaak, meanwhile, has been held without trial as a political prisoner in Eritrea since 2001, prompting the EU assembly to pass a resolution demanding his release and expressing members' "deep concern" at his incarceration "without having been tried by a court of law".
Parliament hardens Russia stance
By awarding the prize to Memorial, the European Parliament would harden its stance towards Russia. Indeed, this is not the first time that MEPs have found themselves at odds with Moscow.
The EU assembly is already organising a conference on the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which split Poland in two between the USSR and Germany and led to the incorporation of Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet Union.
The Parliament also named its press conference room after Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist and human rights activist assassinated in 2006.
Last year, the Parliament adopted a resolution condemning attacks on human rights defenders in Russia after Memorial's St. Petersburg office, which housed archives on the Gulag, was raided by the authorities and 12 computer hard disks containing the entire digital archive of the atrocities committed under Stalin - representing twenty years of work - were confiscated.