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Veronika Marchenko, head of a Russian NGO protecting the rights
Veronika Marchenko, head of a Russian NGO protecting the rights of servicemen and their families, has received the U.S. Secretary of State's annual Award for International Women of Courage.

The award, established in 2007 by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, pays tribute to women leaders worldwide, recognizing "the courage and leadership shown as they struggle for social justice and human rights."

This year's award was also given to honorees representing Afghanistan, Guatemala, Iraq, Malaysia, Niger, Uzbekistan and Yemen. They were nominated by U.S. Embassies for their efforts to advance human rights.

Marchenko, who heads the group Mother's Right, said the award was a sign that Russia-U.S. relations were developing in a friendly way.

Marchenko said the award "should not be regarded as a finger pointing, but rather a helping hand: 'There is a problem, so let's solve it,' and 'it is good that you have been solving it.'"

Foreign grants have been the main source of financing for Mother's Right in the 20 years of its existence. Some funds have come from individuals, but major donors have avoided human rights groups, she said.

Marchenko said 5,000-6,000 families of conscripts appealed to her group annually, and that the organization won 66% of lawsuits on families' complaints in 2008.

Mother's Right lawyers act for conscripts' families to punish those guilty of deaths, to seek moral damage compensation, and to help low-income families receive state subsidies after their sons' deaths in the army.

Russia's army is notorious for its poor living standards and cruel hazing practices. According to the Defense Ministry's statistics, 471 service personnel died in 2008 due to non-combat causes, of which over half - 231 - committed suicide.

Marchenko "has demonstrated exceptional bravery and leadership in exposing the truth surrounding the disturbing peacetime deaths within the Russian armed forces," the State Department's website said.

"Ms. Marchenko has successfully sought justice on behalf of bereaved families of servicemen who died as a result of cruel and inhumane conditions."

The winners of the award were in Washington on March 8-12 for a program of meetings with government officials, NGOs and the media.


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