Renowned human rights activist, dissident dies in Russia

MOSCOW (AP) — Sergei Kovalev, a renowned human rights advocate and dissident who had campaigned for democratic freedoms since Soviet times, died in Russia on Monday at age 91, his son Ivan said on Facebook.

A prolific biophysicist, Kovalev was part of the first independent human rights association in the Soviet Union, co-authored a chapter of Russia’s constitution and served as the first ever human rights ombudsman in Russia.

In a statement, Human Rights Watch said Kovalev “was well-known and admired as a stalwart defender of fundamental rights who always spoke his mind and never compromised on principles.”

Kovalev was born in a small town in then-Soviet Ukraine in 1930. Two years later, his family moved to a village just outside Moscow. He graduated from the biology faculty of Moscow State University in 1954 and moved on to working in the university.

In 1969, Kovalev became part of the Initiative Group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR, the first independent human rights group in the country, and he was pressured to resign from the university. Between 1971 and 1974, he was involved in publishing Current Events Chronicle, an underground bulletin of Soviet human rights advocates that documented human rights abuses.

Kovalev was arrested in 1974 on the charge of spreading anti-Soviet propaganda, and a year later sentenced to seven years in prison followed by three years of exile. He returned to activism in late 1980s after serving his the sentence and was among the co-founders of the Glasnost press club, which later turned into the Moscow Helsinki Group, one of the best known human rights organizations in Russia.

In the 1990s, Kovalev was a member of the Russian parliament, served as the country’s first human rights ombudsman and co-authored one of the chapters of the Russian constitution. He also became co-chair of Memorial, Russia’s most prominent human rights group and a target of government crackdowns in recent years.

He was a fierce opponent of Russia’s war in Chechnya and repeatedly traveled to the war-torn region, documenting human rights abuses.

Since 2006, Kovalev had been a member of Russia’s liberal Yabloko party. He was a vocal critic of the Kremlin, during both Boris Yeltsin’s and Vladimir Putin’s rule.

“We will miss Sergei … in all aspects: as a beloved older friend, a fearless ally, an intellectual and an adviser, committed to the idea of human rights always and in everything, at war and on work days, in politics and in everyday life,” Memorial said in a statement Monday.

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