The Oak Institute for Human Rights, established in 1997, annually brings a prominent human rights activist to campus. While in residence, the Oak Fellow gets a chance to reflect, recuperate, and educate the Colby community about their work.

The 2021 Oak Human Rights Fellow is Olga Sadovskaya, a Russian human rights lawyer. Sadovskaya, vice-chair of the Committee Against Torture, the largest and most notable anti-torture organization in Russia, has worked on issues surrounding torture for more than 18 years. In 2017 she was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sadovskaya, who hails from Nizhny Novgorod in western Russia, will join the Colby community in August and will engage with students, faculty, staff, and the greater community throughout the fall semester.

The Committee Against Torture (CAT), a human rights initiative established in 2000 by Sadovskaya and three other activists, has created accountability for torture that was previously missing in Russia. Torture as an issue was scarcely discussed, and victims were often scared and ashamed to speak out or believed justice was impossible to achieve. Even with CAT’s work, however, the practice of torture prevails, and investigations into torture are still inadequate. This problem is amplified in the Chechen Republic, where Sadovskaya’s organization is the only one working on cases of torture and abductions. 

Sadovskaya and her colleagues have built a dedicated team that has won many international awards: the PACE Prize of the Council of Europe, the Martin Ennals Award, the Frontline Defenders Human Rights Award, and the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize. Sadovskaya herself has received the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award. 

During her early years at the organization, Sadovskaya’s role as an investigator included collecting evidence of torture in prisons, penal colonies, police stations, and psychiatric institutions. Over time, she transitioned to analysis and international defense work with the European Court of Human Rights and various UN bodies. Sadovskaya also trains lawyers on how to work with the European Court of Human Rights. 

Drawing upon years of experience with torture cases, Sadovskaya and her team wrote and published a methodology for public investigations used in the former Soviet Union and now widely used by human rights organizations in Russia. Sadovskaya has personally represented more than 300 victims of torture before the European Court of Justice. Two of the cases were included in the list of the 20 most important cases that changed Russia (Case-Law of the European Court of Human Rights, Special issue, 5, 2018).  

While working against state-sanctioned torture, Sadovskaya has faced personal threats, including threats of murder, particularly for her work in Chechnya. The committee’s office has been burned down several times, and members’ cars have been destroyed. Sadovskaya is also periodically monitored and constantly at risk of being accused of baseless crimes. 

The Oak Human Rights Fellowship will give Sadovskaya a much-needed respite so she can return with new energy to her work in Russia. As the 2021 Oak Fellow, she looks forward to the opportunity to connect with Colby students and raise awareness on issues of torture and incarceration in Russia and around the world.