BRUSSELS (AP) — Eight years after winning Europe's top human rights prize, members of a Cuban opposition group on Tuesday finally picked it up after securing permission to travel abroad.
Cuba's Ladies in White won the European Union's Sakharov Prize in 2005 for their fight for democracy and human rights, but they weren't granted permission to leave the country at that time.
"No dictatorship in the world will be able to stop democracy in the long run," European Parliament President Martin Schulz said at the award ceremony in Brussels. "No people can be oppressed forever."
Berta Soler, a co-founder of the group and one of several members at Tuesday's ceremony, said the work in their country was far from over.
"We need a Cuba where there is proper freedom and human rights," she said, urging "real reforms, not just cosmetic change."
The Ladies in White formed in 2003 to demand freedom for their loved ones, 75 government opponents who had been jailed that spring in a crackdown on dissidents.
Wives and mothers of those jailed began marching each Sunday in Havana, dressed in white and holding aloft white gladiolas. In a Communist country that brooks little dissent, the weekly marches became a unique act of defiance.
Cuba responded by ignoring the protests or sending pro-government crowds to shout the women down in a so-called "act of repudiation." The women have sometimes been arrested, but have usually been released to their homes within hours.
The government considers all dissidents to be mercenaries paid by Washington to stir up trouble.
But the women's protests ultimately worked: The last of the 75 political prisoners was freed in 2011. The majority of the prisoners accepted exile in Spain along with their families.
Since the releases, the Ladies have struggled to find a new direction. But a small core of the original Ladies in White led by Soler still march nearly every Sunday, alongside women who have joined in the years since the 2003 crackdown.
The Sakharov Prize, named after the late Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, is considered the EU's top rights award and comes with a 50,000-euro ($65,000) honorarium. Previous winners include Nobel Peace Prize laureates Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela.
Cuban dissidents say harassment and brief detentions have increased under the leadership of Raul Castro, the younger brother of the island's retired longtime leader Fidel Castro, but they acknowledge that the country's jails are now free of nearly all political prisoners.
Raul Castro has also instituted a series of reforms, most recently eliminating travel restrictions that kept many Cubans from ever leaving the country. The government has allowed several prominent dissidents to travel, most notably blogger Yoani Sanchez, who is on an 80-day world tour and is due back in Havana in May.
Associated Press writer Paul Haven reported from Havana, Cuba.