Human rights in Russia: What follows Oleg Orlov's sentence?

The sentencing of the Nobel Prize-winning activist Oleg Orlov has drawn international criticism. But Russian activists have vowed to carry on their work, and even see a silver lining on the horizon

Russian human rights activist Oleg Orlov has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison. (photo: DW)
Russian human rights activist Oleg Orlov has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison. (photo: DW)


On Tuesday, a court in Moscow sentenced Oleg Orlov, co-founder and co-chair of the human rights organization Memorial, to two and a half years in prison. The 70-year-old had been charged with "repeatedly discrediting" the Russian military after writing an article criticizing Russia's invasion of Ukraine and labeling President Vladimir Putin's regime as "fascist."

Orlov's wife, Tatiana Kasatkina, was present at the verdict's announcement. The two had jointly built up the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization in the 1980s. Russian authorities have been clamping down on the entity's work for years, and in 2021, the Russian Supreme Court ordered the outright liquidation of International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Center, the two branches of the organization.

Despite this, the activists and campaigners involved have carried on their fight, and on Tuesday, Kasatkina confirmed that they would continue to do so. "We will live, and we hope that what is happening right now will be over soon, and that Oleg and many others are released ahead of time," she told reporters in front of the courthouse.

She also said that she believed the court had rushed the case in order to announce the verdict before the upcoming presidential elections in March.

'Fascist totalitarianism'

Members of the movement Veterans of Russia had initiated the case in response to an article by Orlov titled "They wanted fascism. They got it," first published in the French online newspaper Mediapart. In his opinion piece, Orlov argued that, following the "bloody war unleashed by the Putin regime in Ukraine," Russia had "slipped back into totalitarianism, only now of the fascist variety."

A Moscow court had already sentenced Orlov to a fine of 150,000 rubles ($1,650, €1,522) in October 2023. Two months later, however, a higher court canceled the decision and sent the case back to prosecutors. In court, Orlov demonstratively read Franz Kafka's novel "The Trial," and at times even refused to participate in proceedings.

In his closing statement, he said that Russia's "state of affairs really does have a few things in common" with the book's plot, namely "absurdity and tyranny dressed up as formal adherence to some pseudo-legal procedures."

Drawing international attention

Many public figures and politicians in and outside of Russia have called for Orlov's release. In an online statement , the EU's chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, called the sentence "politically motivated," and said it "goes against the Russian legislation and the Russian Constitution."

Nikolay Rybakov, the leader of the Russian opposition party Yabloko, called the court decision "counterproductive" and argued that it undermined state institutions.

Svetlana Gannushkina, who helped set up the Memorial Human Rights Center in the 90s, believes the initial fine was meant to silence Orlov, or persuade him to leave the country.

"But he couldn't leave. Oleg might be one of the few people who still considers himself a patriot. To him, that doesn't just mean loving your country's culture and language," she said. "Above all, it means standing up for freedom and human rights, and fighting for the right to tell the truth."

More risk for human rights advocates

Gannushkina said that Orlov's prison sentence was yet another blow to human rights campaigners in Russia. But she added that such advocates were not yet ready to "go underground" just yet, as there are still some areas where one can work publicly, such as providing refugee aid, or defending labor laws and prisoner's rights.

She said that in spite of the growing risk, new campaigners would still volunteer to join the human rights movement and added that this work is essential for bringing about social change.

But the 81-year-old activist also noted that it could take generations of Russians to overcome the aftermath of what Putin is calling a "special military operation" in Ukraine.

New Russian movements

Another fellow campaigner, the founder of the now-dissolved For Human Rights movement Lev Ponomarev, recalled that Orlov had put his life on the line more than once.

During the 1995 Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis in southern Russia, Orlov and other negotiators volunteered to be hostages for the Chechen separatists to allow for the exchange of civilians.

"And in his closing statement, he didn't speak about himself, but about the killing of Alexei Navalny and other political prisoners," Ponomarev said.

Ponomarev added that the current repression in Russia was also creating an incentive for campaigners to take action, and that smaller popular movements were now replacing larger human rights associations. As an example, he pointed to the movement of women whose husbands have been drafted for Russia's war in Ukraine.

But, Ponomarev said, these new human rights movements rely solely on private donations, which severely limits their work. Still, he's convinced that the mounting pressure from the government was a sign that Putin's regime had maneuvered itself into a "hopeless dead-end."

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Published: 01 Mar 2024, 9:35 AM