Top Russian Human Rights Defender Faces Prison Term

Authorities Target Oleg Orlov for Refusing to Self-Censor

On December 14, most of the media attention will focus on President Putin’s hyped, annual call-in show. But a significantly more important event is scheduled to take place that day: the appeal in the criminal case of Oleg Orlov, cochair of Memorial, a leading Russian human rights organization.

On October 11, a Moscow court convicted and fined Orlov 150,000 rubles (US$1500) on charges of “repeated discreditation” of Russia’s armed forces. Compared to the long prison sentences handed down in other high-profile politically motivated trials since 2022, this seemed like a victory. Whether it was Orlov’s prominence, the vigorous campaign in Russia and internationally to support him, Memorial’s 2022 Noble Peace Prize, or a combination of these factors, the prosecutor’s office had not asked for Orlov’s imprisonment at the time.

Mild sentence or not, Orlov refused to accept the guilty verdict and the mockery of justice his prosecution represented. On November 26, he appealed and the prosecutor’s office immediately filed a counter-appeal, demanding a three-year prison sentence: the maximum punishment on those charges.

Apparently antagonized by Orlov’s persistent refusal to be silenced, or pressured by the higher authorities, the local prosecutor’s office argued in its appeal that the trial court failed to take into account such “aggravating circumstances” as Orlov’s “personality” and “the degree of public danger pertinent to his actions.” They claimed Orlov’s crime of discreditation was allegedly motivated by his “political and ideological hatred towards the Russian Federation, which he attempted to pass on to as many people as possible.” Moreover, they claimed Orlov and Memorial persist in their “activities aimed at undermining the stability of [Russia’s] civil society” despite the fact authorities liquidated the organization’s legal entity in 2022. Orlov’s numerous media interviews show that he “continues to speak negatively of Russian governmental agencies, [thereby] undermining the foundations of the Constitutional rule and the state security,” prosecutors said.

These factors, the appeal concluded, indicate that “in order to correct his ways, Orlov needs to be isolated from society.”

The very language of the prosecutors’ appeal speaks for itself. The authorities want to punish Orlov for refusing to self-censor, even in the face of prosecution. “Speaking negatively” should never be a crime. The authorities should drop their senseless appeal.