April 24, 2024

Brighton Journal

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Ukraine War: Russian human rights activist Oleg Orlov sentenced to prison

Ukraine War: Russian human rights activist Oleg Orlov sentenced to prison
  • Written by Steve Rosenberg
  • Editor of Russia

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Oleg Orlov was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “defaming” the Russian Armed Forces

Oleg Orlov appeared calm as he sat waiting for the judge to issue the ruling.

Room 518 of the courtroom was filled with well-wishers, foreign ambassadors and journalists.

The judge entered the courtroom and began reading the ruling.

It announced that the veteran human rights activist was guilty of “repeatedly defaming” the Russian armed forces.

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

He was handcuffed, and minutes later, police removed him from the courtroom.

This was a retrial.

In October 2023, the court also issued a guilty verdict. But the punishment was much lighter.

Oleg Orlov received a fine of 150,000 rubles (£1,290; $1,630) and was released. Prosecutors complained that the sentence was too light. A higher court overturned the ruling and ordered a retrial.

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

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

When he was interviewed last year before his first trial, he insisted he had done nothing wrong.

“The article under which I am being tried is ‘general actions aimed at discrediting the use of the Russian Armed Forces to protect the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens, and to maintain international peace and security,’” he told me.

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

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

“As for 'maintaining international peace and security', that's just a joke. It reminds me of George Orwell's books 'War is Peace' and 'Freedom is Slavery'. The claim that the war in Ukraine is 'in the interest of international peace' is just that,” he said. This is nonsense”.

This week, in his closing statement during the retrial, Oleg Orlov spoke of Russia “sinking deeper into darkness.”

He gave examples: the death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in prison, and judicial retaliation against other government critics. He summarized what is happening in his country as “stifling freedom.”

“We know the real reason why we were detained, tried, arrested, sentenced and killed. We are being punished because we dared to criticize the authorities. This is strictly prohibited in today's Russia,” he said.

Addressing the judge and the public prosecutor, he added: “Doesn’t the obvious occur to you? That the machine of oppression may roll over sooner or later on whoever launched it and pushed it forward? This is what has happened many times throughout history.”

Oleg Orlov is not the first government critic in Russia to receive a prison sentence. Last year, prominent sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky was convicted of “public justification of terrorism” over comments he made about the attack on the Crimean Bridge in 2022. Also in this case, the prosecution has appealed the ruling. Earlier this month, the court sentenced Kagarlitsky to five years in prison.

Since Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, Russian authorities have put in place a vast array of repressive laws that can be used to punish government critics and opponents of the war in Ukraine.

In addition to criminalizing “defamation” of the military, Russian criminal law now punishes what it calls “public dissemination of intentionally false information about the use of the Russian Armed Forces.”

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

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

These are dark days for the Russian opposition.

Alexei Navalny, one of the Kremlin's most charismatic critics, has died. Other prominent figures are in prison or have fled into exile.

For now, Vladimir Putin's harshest critics and potential rivals appear to have been shut out of the political stage.

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