Nelson Mandela, the Arab Spring activists and . . . Edward Snowden. In 10 days, they could share space on a prestigious list assembled by the European Parliament honoring those “who combat fanaticism, intolerance or oppression.”
The first two are past winners of the Parliament’s top human rights award, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The third is a fugitive former National Security Agency contractor who’s been charged with espionage by the United States but is seen by a hero by Europe’s political left, and who has now been named a finalist for this year’s Sakharov award.
Snowden, 30, leaked classified documents about the NSA’s surveillance programs that sweep up information about millions of online and telephone communications. The documents he shared with newspapers in Great Britain, the United States and Brazil resulted in revelations that infuriated and embarrassed politicians worldwide and set off a congressional rebellion in Washington over the programs, which previously had been among the U.S. government’s most closely held secrets.
Snowden famously spent more than a month this summer in the international transit lounge of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, before being granted asylum in Russia, where he remains.
The Greens and Europe Free Alliance political parties nominated Snowden for the award in September. In a joint statement attributed to the coalition’s presidents, they noted: “Edward Snowden has risked his freedom to help us protect ours and he deserves to be honored for shedding light on the systematic infringements of civil liberties by U.S. and European secret services. Instead of being given asylum in the EU, he has been abandoned by cowardly European governments.”
On Monday, the Parliament’s foreign affairs and development committees winnowed the list of nominees to three – Snowden, a group of jailed Belarusian political activists representing “all Belarusian political prisoners,” and Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl from Swat Valley who survived Taliban assassins who had marked her after she advocated education for girls. The winner will be picked by Oct. 10 by the Parliament’s president and the leaders of the body’s political groups.
The European Parliament is the only directly elected body within the European Union setup, and its selection of Snowden provides an insight into how his revelations are viewed in Europe, even as he faces criminal charges in the United States.
Dominique Moisi, an expert on European-American relations at the French Institute for International Relations, cautioned that the nomination says more about the nominating parties than about a broader European view. But even he acknowledged that the inclusion of Snowden in the final three underscores a major difference between the United States and Europe.
“Perhaps it says that with the NSA scandal, the United States has isolated itself among democratic countries,” he said.
The Sakharov award is named for Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb who became a political dissident. It comes with a 50,000 euro prize (about $67,000), and began in 1988 “to honor individuals or organizations for their efforts on behalf of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
In addition to Mandela and the Arab Spring activists, other past winners include Reporters without Borders, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan and the U.N. staff.
Kristinn Hrafnsson, spokesman for the WikiLeaks organization, which has been very supportive of Snowden throughout the summer, noted that the consideration of Snowden for a prestigious human rights award “is appropriate, it’s very appropriate. It’s a good reflection of the importance of his actions.”