Prominent Russian human rights activist jailed

Connie Queline

Prominent Russian human rights activist jailed


Oleg Orlov looked calm as he sat waiting for the judge to deliver the verdict.

Room 518 in the courthouse was packed with well-wishers, foreign ambassadors and journalists.

The judge entered the courtroom and began reading out the verdict.

She declared the veteran human rights campaigner guilty of “repeatedly discrediting” the Russian armed forces.

Having named the crime, she announced the punishment: Oleg Orlov, co-chair of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation “Memorial”, was sent to prison for two and a half years.

He was handcuffed and, minutes later, led out of the courtroom by police.

This had been a re-trial.

In October 2023, the court had delivered a guilty verdict, too. But the punishment then had been considerably milder.

Oleg Orlov had received a 150,000 rouble fine (£1,290; $1,630) and walked free. Prosecutors complained that the sentence was too soft. A higher court cancelled the ruling, and a re-trial was ordered.

It was a sign that in Russia the authorities were becoming increasingly intolerant of public criticism.

In protest at being forced back to court, Oleg Orlov paid little attention to proceedings second time round. Instead, he sat in court reading a copy of The Trial, Franz Kafka’s classic on the absurdity of life and injustice.

When I interviewed him last year ahead of his first trial, he insisted he had done nothing wrong.

“The article I’m being tried under is ‘Public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the Russian armed forces for protecting the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens, and preserving international peace and security’,” he told me.

“First of all, the Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. I wrote an article presenting my assessment of events. Prosecuting me for that violates the constitution.

“Secondly, what is happening in Ukraine – let’s be clear and call it a war – it is against the interests of Russia and Russian citizens.

“As for ‘preserving international peace and security’, that’s a joke. It reminds me of George Orwell’s ‘War is Peace’ and ‘Freedom is Slavery’. Claiming that the war in Ukraine is ‘in the interests of international peace’ is just nonsense,” he said.

This week, in his closing statement at the re-trial, Oleg Orlov spoke of a Russia that is “sinking ever more deeply into darkness.”

He gave examples: the death in prison of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, judicial reprisals against other government critics. He summed up what was happening in his country as “the suffocation of freedom.”

“We know the real reason why we’re being detained, tried, arrested, sentenced and killed. We are being punished for daring to criticise the authorities. In present-day Russia this is absolutely prohibited,” he said.

Addressing the judge and the prosecutor, he added: “Doesn’t the obvious occur to you? That sooner or later, the machine of repression may roll over those who launched it and drove it forward? That’s what happened many times throughout history.”

Oleg Orlov is not the first government critic in Russia to have a fine upgraded to a prison sentence. Last year prominent sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky was found guilty of “public justification of terrorism” for comments he’d made about the attack on the Crimean bridge in 2022. In this case, too, the prosecution appealed the sentence. Earlier this month a court sent Mr Kagarlitsky to prison for five years.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, the Russian authorities have put together a hefty toolbox of repressive laws which can be employed to punish critics of the government and opponents of the war in Ukraine.

As well as criminalising “discreditation” of the army, Russia’s criminal code now punishes what it calls “the public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Russian armed forces”.

Often referred to as the “Law on Fakes”, it has been used to imprison such vocal Kremlin critics as Ilya Yashin.

Last year, Kremlin critic and anti-war activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was convicted of treason and sentenced to 25 years in a prison colony.

These are dark days for the Russian opposition.

Alexei Navalny, one of the most charismatic critics of the Kremlin, is dead; other leading figures are in prison or have fled into exile.

For now, it seems that Vladimir Putin’s most vocal critics and potential rivals have been removed from the political stage.

Related Topics

  • War in Ukraine
  • Russia


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