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Memorial co-chair and veteran human rights activist Oleg Orlov sentenced to 2.5 years in prison for “discrediting” Russia’s army

A Moscow court has sentenced Oleg Orlov, co-chairman of the human rights organization Memorial, to two years and six months in a penal colony for repeatedly “discrediting” the Russian army, according to a report by SotaVision. State prosecutors had demanded that Orlov be sentenced to 2 years and 11 months’ imprisonment on the eve of the verdict.

Orlov has already been to court in this case. He was sentenced to a fine of 150 thousand roubles (close to $1,600) in October last year.

But then the Moscow City Court did something unusual: it reversed the fine and returned the Orlov case files to investigators, who continued looking for a criminal offense in the activist’s work history. They purportedly found one in the underlying motive that authorities say drove Orlov’s activism: political hatred, a crime punishable with prison time in Russia.

The criminal case against Orlov was opened in March 2023 after a search at Memorial’s offices in Moscow, carried out as part of another case investigating the “rehabilitation of Nazism.” During the investigation, equipment and archival documents were confiscated from the organization. Orlov was then accused of writing an article in which he called Russia's military actions in Ukraine “the heaviest blow to the future of the country.” The article, titled “They wanted fascism — they got it,” was first published in the French publication Mediapart and then by the human rights activist on his Facebook page.

During the trial, Oleg Orlov stated that he did not understand the essence of the charges against him, refused to participate in the debates and banned his lawyers from calling defense witnesses, stating that he did not want to put others at risk of inclusion in the same registry after he was branded a “foreign agent” by Russia’s Ministry of Justice.

As a result, Orlov refused to defend himself in court and only gave a closing statement. In his speech, the human rights activist called the murder of Alexei Navalny, the strangulation of freedom of speech in Russia, the invasion of Ukraine and “judicial massacres of critics of the regime,” including himself, as links in the same chain.

“We are accused of doubting that an attack on a neighboring state is aimed at keeping the peace. This is absurd. [...] In fact, we are being punished for criticizing the authorities — this is absolutely forbidden in today's Russia,” Orlov said in his last statement, delivered on February 26.

Alexander Cherkasov, a human rights activist and board member of the Memorial Human Rights Defense Center, told The Insider that he believes Oleg Orlov did not leave Russia despite the criminal prosecution as he is following the same principles he has followed all his life.

“Orlov is a man of his word. If he said he would not leave, he will keep his word. And now he has repeated that he sees this trial as a continuation of his human rights work. Oleg has chosen this himself, whether anyone likes it or not.
Oleg Orlov always goes against the grain. He put up leaflets against the invasion of Afghanistan. He put up leaflets against martial law in Poland in the early 1980s. It's a miracle he didn't go to prison under the Soviets. In all the post-Soviet wars, he worked against the wars his country started. He rescued Russian prisoners in Grozny and Shamil Basayev's hostages in Budennovsk. For the same reasons, from the very beginning of the big war in Ukraine, he went to the squares of Moscow with posters.
On the eve of the trial, the authorities gave Orlov a ‘gift’ — a ‘noble title’ by branding him a ‘foreign agent.’ Oleg said in court that by calling witnesses in his defense, he would have framed them. This is the main reason why he refused to take part in the trial. His refusal to take part in the trial is also a reference, an appeal to some Soviet dissidents who simply ignored farcical trials. Alexander Podrabinek, Tatiana Velikanova, Anatoly Koryagin and others did this. And Kafka's book The Trial explained it to those who needed it ‘twice and slowly.’ Oleg held Kafka in his hands throughout the trial.”

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