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Anna Šabatová awarded Alice Masaryk prize by US embassy

Prague, 14.12.2010 20:30, (ROMEA)

Former deputy ombudsman Anna Šabatová has been awarded the Alice Garrigue Masaryk prize by the US embassy to the Czech Republic this year for her contributions to human rights. Šabatová, who signed Charter 77 and is currently chair of the Czech Helsinki Committee, received the prize from US chargé d‘affaires Joseph Pennington, who said she had won the award for her life-long courage in the fight for justice, for her committed work on behalf of society at the office of the ombudsman, and for her ongoing efforts to improve conditions for people in the Czech Republic and in Europe.

"I very much appreciate this award. Alice Masaryková was a great personality. I feel a connection to her because she founded the field of social work here and was aware that social rights are important. She also supported the active involvement of women in the life of society in the 1920s and promoted voting rights for women long before they were ever introduced. This is all very inspirational and interesting to me," Šabatová told news server Romea.cz.

In her acceptance speech, Šabatová reminisced about her collaboration with the US embassy during the 1980s: "We particularly appreciated the fact that at the US embassy, unlike others, there was always one staff member whose job was almost exclusively devoted to contact with the inhabitants of the country, with ordinary people, and also of course with the opposition." According to Šabatová, the US embassy greatly assisted the Czech dissidents. "This prize is also very important to me for that reason," she told Romea.cz.

Anna Šabatová was one of the first people to sign Charter 77 and was one of their spokespeople. She was also a co-founder of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted. The communist regime persecuted her for her dissident activity and imprisoned her between 1971 and 1973. During the 1990s she became involved with non-state institutions. From 2001 - 2007 she was deputy ombudsman. In 2002 she was awarded a Medal of Honor, a state award given by the Czech President. Since 2008 she has been chair of the Czech Helsinki Committee.

The Alice Garrigue Masaryk prize has been awarded by the US embassy since 2004. Its first recipient was Jiří Kopal of the League of Human Rights. One year later, Kumar Vishwanathan received the award for the effort and initiative he showed in creating the Co-existence Village in Ostrava for Roma and people from the majority society. Last year the prize was awarded to David Ondraček, director of the Czech branch of Transparency International, in appreciation for his stance on the fight against corrupt public officials. Previous recipients of the prize have been Lucie Sládková of the International Organization for Migration and Igor Blaževič of People in Need.

The award is named for Alice Garrigue Masaryk, the daughter of the first President of Czechoslovakia. Alice Masaryk was the founder of the Czechoslovak Red Cross. The award is intended to honor her determination to fight against societal injustice and is for personal bravery in defending human rights.

Anna Šabatová's acceptance speech is reprinted in full below:

Dear Mr Chargé d´affaires, Dear, Esteemed Friends,

I would like to express my thanks for this extraordinary award, which is important to me for two reasons. It is taking place at the American Embassy in Prague, and it is named after Alice Garrigue Masaryk, whose fate and life were very inspiring to me.

Allow me to reminisce a little. During the 1980s, we were working in the Charter 77 human rights movement. Part of our activities involved contact with the staff of some Western embassies, including the American embassy. We particularly appreciated the fact that at the US embassy, unlike others, there was always one staff member whose job was almost exclusively devoted to contact with the inhabitants of the country, with ordinary people, and also of course with the opposition. We also appreciated - and we were in a position to compare - that the American diplomats never arrived in-country unprepared with respect to context or language. Before arriving in Czechoslovakia, all of them had to study Czech, including the ambassador - this naturally, concerned all of the countries. I considered that an admirable element of their diplomacy, and it was definitely not the norm.

I would like to mention the names of the diplomats who became our friends - most of them were women, and one was a man. They were, in order: Helena Weiland; Judy Dean, accompanied by her husband Stephan, who was proud of his status as the husband of a diplomat; and last but not least, Bob Norman, who was rewarded for his engagement by being deported from Czechoslovakia just before the November revolution.

I remember how Judy and Stephan once brought us an invitation to a Fourth of July reception. We confessed to them, honestly, that we were not likely to come because we did not exactly identify with President Reagan's policies. Stephan swiftly responded that President Reagan was not inviting us to the reception, the American people were, and that, of course, we could not refuse.

I will confess - no torture necessary - that I have long forgotten all the names of ambassadors in those days, but I will never forget the names and faces of those three committed young diplomats. We became friends with the last two I have mentioned in particular and visited them often. Bob Norman regularly came for information about Charter 77, which my friends and my husband and I gave him. He also drew on that information for the traditional human rights report which the US Department of State regularly publishes.

I very much appreciate the fact that an integral component of American diplomacy is support for human rights efforts, even in democratic conditions. This is something which our society has recently forgotten about.

Our society is not just forgetting about human rights, but some who are by no means insignificant are doubting and even ridiculing them. The content and form of human rights efforts in a democratic society is understandably different in many aspects from the fight for human rights in the pre-November era, but the essence remains the same. As long as all people are not able to live dignified, free lives, there will still be work to do. Even democratic states can and do have significant deficits in terms of upholding human rights. There is not a country in the world where everything is in order, where human rights are never violated.

The Czech philosopher Ladislav Hejdánek once said human rights are a never-ending task, they are a horizon toward which we move and which we may never attain. That does not mean we should not aim for that horizon.

In this context, I particularly appreciate your selection of the symbolic figure for the award I have the honor of receiving today, Alice Masaryk. She is a woman who symbolizes not just good relations between the people of the United States of America and the people of Czechoslovakia, today the Czech Republic, but also, primarily, a completely practical effort to see the rights of ordinary people fulfilled, included social rights and women's rights. Her engagement in the Czechoslovak Red Cross, her founding of the colleges of social work, and her contribution to the management of nursing schools were all admirable actions, work which can be carried on even 90 years later.

Alice Masaryk was not, however, just an organizer on behalf of human rights and a practical woman. She was also very educated. She studied history and philosophy at Charles University and wrote her dissertation on the rise and significance of the Magna Charta libertatum. She was the first woman in this country to be awarded a PhD in history and one of the first-ever graduates of Prague's Philosophical Faculty. She studied economics and sociology and continued her studies in Berlin, Leipzig, and the US. At the age of 26, in the year 1905, she lectured on voting rights for women in Prague, many years before women actually won the right to vote.

Alice Masaryk was a great woman, and it is truly an honor for me to receive a prize bearing her name.

ČTK, František Kostlán, Gwendolyn Albert, fk, Czech Press Agency, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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