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Russian Court Sentences Leader of Memorial Rights Group to Prison

A Moscow court sentenced the co-chairman of Memorial, the Russian rights group that was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, to two and a half years in prison on Tuesday for “discrediting” Russia’s military by voicing his opposition to the war in Ukraine.

Although the Kremlin ordered his group liquidated in late 2021, the co-chairman, Oleg Orlov, 70, chose to stay in Russia after its invasion of Ukraine two years ago and has continued to criticize his government despite a climate of increasing repression.

In November 2022, Mr. Orlov, one of Russia’s most prominent rights campaigners, wrote an article headlined “They Wanted Fascism. They Got it,” in which he blamed President Vladimir V. Putin and the wider Russian public for the “mass murder of the Ukrainian people” and for dealing “a very heavy blow to Russia’s future.”

“The country that left behind communist totalitarianism 30 years ago has slipped back into totalitarianism, only now of the fascist variety,” he wrote in the publication, which was published online in several languages.

Nearly a year later, he was convicted of “repeated discrediting” Russia’s armed forces. That charge carries a sentence of up to five years in prison, but he was punished only with a fine of 150,000 rubles, about $1,600, because of mitigating factors including his age and his prominent public profile.

Prosecutors, accusing him of exhibiting “a motive of enmity and hatred toward military personnel,” requested that he be retried and given a three-year prison sentence. A Moscow court reheard the case, resulting in the sentencing on Tuesday.

Mr. Orlov has maintained his innocence and denounced the charges as bogus. “I do not plead guilty, and the accusation is not clear to me,” he told the court during a hearing in mid-February. “The court, despite my requests, was unable to clearly explain the essence of the charges brought against me.”

Rights groups and the United States ambassador to Russia, Lynne M. Tracy, condemned the sentence. “In previous times his efforts have been awarded at the highest levels,” Ms. Tracy said in a statement posted on the embassy’s website. “In today’s Russia he is being locked away for them.”

Since Mr. Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine two years ago, repression has been on the rise in Russia. There are hundreds of political prisoners in the country, according to Memorial, Mr. Orlov’s organization, which was founded during the fall of the Soviet Union to document the abuses of the Stalin regime.

Although Memorial’s headquarters in central Moscow was shuttered and requisitioned by the state, the group has continued a modified form of its work in Russia and abroad.

Mr. Orlov’s early activism included protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, first by clandestinely spreading antiwar pamphlets around Moscow. In the late 1980s, he joined Memorial to help the group understand the vast scope of Soviet crimes against the country’s own citizens in the hopes that the abuses would not be repeated.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Mr. Orlov traveled to investigate rights abuses in many of the conflicts that ensued. In 1995, he helped secure the freedom of about 2,000 hostages who were being held in a Russian hospital by Chechen separatists, by offering to take the hostages’ place.

He was taken hostage a second time, in 2007, by masked gunmen in Ingushetia, a region in southern Russia.

Early this month, the Russian state declared him a “foreign agent,” a designation, reminiscent of the Stalin era, that is accompanied by onerous financial reporting requirements and public stigma.

Numerous activists in Russia and several prominent opposition politicians have also been jailed for criticizing their country’s invasion of Ukraine, especially the Russian military’s brutality in places like Bucha and Mariupol.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, an outspoken critic, received a 25-year sentence in April — the harshest received by any opposition politician since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — for “disseminating falsehoods” about the Russian military. Ilya Yashin, an opposition politician, was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for condemning Russian atrocities. And Aleksei Gorinov, a Moscow lawmaker, was sentenced to seven years in prison for suggesting in early 2022 that a children’s drawing contest be postponed while Ukrainian children were under attack.

More than 20,000 people have been detained for protesting the war, including 400 since the death of Russia’s main opposition figure, Aleksei A. Navalny, was announced this month. Amid that climate of fear, Mr. Navalny’s team has been unable to find a public place willing to host a wake for him in Moscow.

A lawyer working for Mr. Navalny and his family, Vasily Dubkov, was also arrested on Tuesday and charged with “violating the public order,” according to two independent Russian media outlets operating in exile. Mr. Dubkov had traveled to the remote Polar Wolf penal colony with Mr. Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila, as she demanded her son’s body be released to her.

Mr. Dubkov was released shortly after he was detained, he told the independent outlet Vyorstka. He did not comment on his brief detention except to say it had prevented him from doing his legal work.

Russian authorities recognized Mr. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund as an “extremist” organization in 2021, the same designation the “Global L.G.B.T.Q. movement” was given last year. In October 2023, three of Mr. Navalny’s lawyers, Igor Sergunin, Vadim Kobzev and Alexey Liptser, were detained and charged with aiding an “extremist” organization. There are warrants for two other lawyers outside of Russia, according to the human rights watchdog OVD-Info.

In his 2022 essay, Mr. Orlov pondered the limits on rights activism in times of heightened repression.

“Today’s Russian human rights defenders find themselves in the position of dissidents, their predecessors in Soviet times,” he wrote. “The identification of human rights violations and bringing them to the attention of Russian and foreign public opinion is increasingly becoming the main form of human rights work.”

Now, the country’s remaining rights activists are trying to draw attention to his case.

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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