He believed in Russia today, the place of a decent person is only in prison

Reminiscences about Oleh Orlov.
15 March 2024UA DE EN ES FR RU

Олег Орлов

Oleh Orlov, co-chairman of the Council of the Center for the Protection of Human Rights “Memorial”

On February 27, Judge Olena Astakhova of the Golovinsky Court in Moscow sentenced Russian human rights activist Oleh Orlov to 2.5 years in a general regime colony under the article on “repeated discrediting” of the army. On February 26, the prosecution asked for 2 years and 11 months. The human rights activist is currently in pre-trial detention center No. 7 “Kapotnya”.

Fascist totalitarianism

Oleh Orlov was previously tried on the same charge.

In November 2022, the French publication Mediapart published his article in French entitled “They wanted fascism. They got it.” Oleh presented this text in Russian on his Facebook page. He noted that the war in Ukraine is a heavy blow to the future of Russia and condemned military actions in every possible way. He called the regime in the Russian Federation “fascist.” “The country, which abandoned communist totalitarianism thirty years ago, has slipped back into totalitarianism, but now fascist,” — he wrote.

According to the court, this discredited the Russian armed forces. By court decision, Orlov was fined 150 thousand rubles. However, the prosecutor’s office appealed, and the appeal court returned the case to the prosecution to establish the motive for the crime. They quickly ruled ideological hatred “against traditional Russian spiritual, moral and patriotic values” and hatred of Russian military personnel.

This time, the court has arrested Oleh.

However, 2.5 years of imprisonment, like the previous fine, is simply a punishment for Orlov calling a spade a spade. Indeed, criticism of government authorities or a personal opinion that differs from the official one is already a crime in modern Russian realities.

An attempt to silence the voice of the human rights movement

In his last address in the court, Oleh noted: “The state in our country again controls not only social, political, and economic life, but also claims complete control over culture, scientific thought, and invades private life. It becomes all-encompassing. And we see it. In just over four months since the end of my first trial in this same court, many events have shown how quickly our country is sinking deeper and deeper into this darkness.”

“The sentence against Oleh Orlov is an attempt to silence the voice of the human rights movement in Russia and any criticism of the state. The Russian authorities must drop all charges against Orlov immediately. Freedom to all political prisoners!” says the Memorial Human Rights Protection Center (CHR) statement.

On February 27, hundreds of people came to the courtroom to support Orlov: there were so many of them that a line formed. In particular, these were human rights activists, diplomats, friends, and simply caring people, as well as representatives of the embassies of the following countries: Czech Republic, Poland, Portugal, Australia, Austria, Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Latvia, Germany, France, USA, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Denmark. In addition — EU Ambassador Roland Galaraga and US Ambassador Lynn Tracy.

“Oleh and I created the Memorial together. But the most important thing we have created is the team. A team that will work regardless of whether Oleh is free or not. Therefore, we will work. We will live and hope that someday what is happening now will end.” — said Oleh’s wife, human rights activist Tetiana Kasatkina.

Олег Орлов

Oleh Orlov, co-chairman of the Council of the Center for the Protection of Human Rights “Memorial”

A mockery of justice

The Human Rights Center “Memorial” and 31 other human rights organizations issued a joint statement about the unfair and politically motivated sentence of Oleh Orlov. In particular, these are Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), Center for Civil Liberties, World Organization Against Torture, Andrei Sakharov Institute, Human Rights Center Viasna, and others.

“Orlov (born 1953) is one of Russia’s most famous human rights activists. He dedicated his life to documenting human rights violations and helping victims of abuses. His ‘crime’ boils down to protesting the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine and the escalation of repression within Russia. The Orlov trial is a mockery of justice and a blow to the fundamental right to free expression. Orlov, who was taken into custody in the courtroom, will challenge the unfair verdict.

Russian authorities must immediately cease their prosecution of Orlov and release him, as well as all those imprisoned, as retaliation for exercising their fundamental rights, including the right to publicly criticize the authorities’ violations of their international legal obligations. Key international players need to do everything possible to secure Orlov’s release and hold Russian authorities accountable for gross and systematic human rights violations,” — the statement said.

Man of Honor

Oleh Orlov co-founded Memorial, the organization that won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. He devoted his life to the fight for human rights in Russia and has opposed wars for more than 30 years. He is a genuine man of honor, fighting for fundamental values not only in words. For example, he saved captured Russian soldiers during the war in Chechnya.

“Oleh is a man of fundamental honesty and responsibility. He was forced to leave his beloved biology science to defend people’s rights and freedoms when the law did not work. I’m proud to know him.

Throughout these ten years of war, we worked side by side with Memorial to protect illegally imprisoned citizens of Ukraine during Russian aggression. We organized joint field missions, in which he participated, to document war crimes. I can’t tell you the details now, but I just want to express my gratitude and admiration for Oleh Orlov’s courage.

I met him and other colleagues from Memorial many years ago when I first started doing human rights work. I remember his stories about how, during the Chechen War, during negotiations with Shamil Basayev’s fighters, he and several of his colleagues agreed to become voluntary hostages to guarantee the implementation of the agreements reached on the prisoners’ exchange. In reality, he has now become such a hostage because even after the initiation of a politically motivated criminal case against him, he did not look for an opportunity to go abroad but decided to fight to the end and prove by his example that his article about the fascist regime in Russia, for which he was tried, accurate and true,” — says the head of the Center for Civil Liberties, Oleksandra Matviichuk.

Олег Орлов та Олександра Матвійчук

Oleh Orlov and Oleksandra Matviichuk

“Our first meeting and personal acquaintance occurred when I was ‘rescuing’ Oleh Orlov, whom Ukrainian border guards detained at the station upon his arrival in Kharkiv in 2015. He was detained to determine why this Russian citizen arrived in Kharkiv at the height of the military confrontation. They released him immediately when we proved that they were our colleagues, human rights activists.

Together with Oleh Orlov, we made joint trips in 2015-2016 to the territory near the demarcation line. We were in Sievierodonetsk, Volnovakha, Mariupol, Stanitsa Luhanska, Toretsk, Bakhmut, Márinka, Krasnohorivka, and many other cities and villages. Our goal was to collect data on the harm the war caused to the population of these territories and to record facts of violation of people’s rights. Oleh was conducting research in both controlled and uncontrolled territories. He went there through Ukraine because he did not want to break Ukrainian laws. In the occupied territories, collecting data was a significant risk. Oleh and his colleague took grave risks due to the lack of special permits, and, fortunately, this essentially humanitarian mission ended successfully.

We were in Mariupol during pro-Russian rallies, attended mainly by elderly people. People were negatively disposed towards human rights activists. Still, Oleh managed to interview them thanks to his Russian passport and the ability to play a certain naivety at the right time. Our task was to conduct a study of human rights violations and, subsequently, create a joint report from the Kharkiv Human Rights Group and the Russian Memorial. In my opinion, at the time, it was one of the best reports we presented in the European Parliament.

In 2022, we participated together in the Nobel Prize award ceremony in Oslo. Oleh Orlov represented ‘Memorial’, which was already banned in Russia. I was amazed that during his speech at an open meeting on the station square, Oleh spoke and addressed hundreds of people, noting that Russia is a fascist state committing many war crimes. It was a sharp and truthful speech. I asked Oleh if maybe he decided not to return to Russia anymore; however, he objected.

Oleh had the opportunity to go abroad and stay there — government officials also told him about this and wanted him not to return. However, he deliberately returned, and it all ended with an actual sentence — 2.5 years in prison for absolutely nothing. At the age of 70, this is a heavy punishment. The reason for the sentence is a published article in which he called the war a war and accused Russia of starting the war,” — executive director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Union for Human Rights Oleksandr Pavlichenko shares his memories.

Олег Орлов

Oleh Orlov while documenting the war in Eastern Ukraine.

Олег Орлов

Oleh Orlov

“I have known Oleh since the late 80s. When I joined the board of the International Memorial Society in 1994, Oleh and I saw each other regularly because he was also a board member. Since then, we have communicated a lot because he was one of the few people on the board involved in human rights, like me.

Oleh is a courageous person. He traveled to all the hot spots where armed conflicts had broken out or were just about to break out and tried to find out the causes of these conflicts. He tried to be a negotiator to reconcile opponents and prevent violence. In addition, Oleh helped Serhii Kovalev, who was first the head of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and later the first ombudsman of the Russian Federation. However, as a modest person, he was always in the shadows.

After 2014, Oleh began traveling on monitoring missions to Ukraine in the territory of the armed conflict. He and Yan Rachynskyi went to the controlled territory together with our monitors from the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG). They went to the uncontrolled territory by themselves.

Олег Орлов

Oleg Orlov and Yan Rachinsky

Олег Орлов

Oleh Orlov, Yan Rachynskyi, Liudmyla Klochko (KHPG)

He and I had many shared affairs related to the rescue of Russian refugees, in particular Chechens.

It was evident the Russian authorities were reluctant to condemn him to imprisonment. They hinted to him in various ways to emigrate. He was released from Russia wherever he asked to go. His friends tried to persuade him to give up the test of the government’s leniency. However, Oleh believed the ring of freedom in Russia should be strengthened. Therefore, he checked whether he would be imprisoned and what could or could not be done in Russia. I also tried to persuade him to leave by suggesting various joint activities abroad, and he even became interested but still decided on his unique path.

After he wrote the article ‘They wanted fascism. They got it’, he was first awarded a fine of 150 thousand rubles. However, he appealed this decision, believing that this punishment was inadequate because he did not violate anything and simply expressed his opinion. After this, the Russian authorities went wild: they declared him a foreign agent and very quickly crafted a new charge, which had a motive of ideological hatred. Honestly, it is very difficult to understand what it means. He refused to participate in the latest trial because he was afraid of harming his friends who were witnesses for the defense (among them, for example, was Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize). Only legal defense remained. He reserved the right to the last word, and throughout the trial, which lasted several days, he sat and read Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial. The result of the process — 2.5 years of captivity — was appointed before it began.

Oleh was handcuffed right in the courtroom. You should have seen his face. He smiled triumphantly. On the second day, the lawyer who visited him said he had never seen a convicted person in such a good mood. He achieved what he wanted: to be imprisoned. He believed in Russia today, the place of a decent person is only in prison.

Oleh is a human rights activist and our ally. He went out against the war with Ukraine on single pickets four times in Russia. He was detained four times for this. And this alone threatened him with imprisonment. He argued that in Russia, there are people who are against the Putin regime, against the war, and for Ukraine, demonstrating that not all Russians think the way Putin and his entourage do,” — notes KHPG director Evhen Zakharov.

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