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Oleg Orlov in court in Moscow, February 27, 2024

In a four-day trial, here’s how Russia sentenced leading human rights activist Oleg Orlov to 2.5 years in prison for writing that the Putin regime has become fascist

Source: Mediazona
Oleg Orlov in court in Moscow, February 27, 2024
Oleg Orlov in court in Moscow, February 27, 2024
Alexander Nemenov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Long-time human rights activist Oleg Orlov is going to prison for the next two and a half years, following a retrial that raised his punishment from a 150,000-ruble fine to incarceration. Last October, Orlov was convicted of violating Russia’s law against “discrediting” the armed forces by writing an antiwar essay, titled “They Wanted Fascism, and That’s What They Got.” Two weeks after this initial ruling, state prosecutors filed for a retrial, arguing that the first case had missed Orlov’s supposed “motive of political and ideological hatred.” Throughout the retrial, Orlov refused to participate in questioning and cross-examinations. Instead, while sitting in the courtroom, he made a show of reading The Trial, Franz Kafka’s famous novel about a man arrested and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority for a crime that’s never explained. Orlov, who co-founded the human rights group Memorial (which Russia’s Prosecutor General dissolved in late 2021 for violating “foreign agent” disclosure rules), was sentenced after making a brief closing statement and then whisked away by a phalanx of masked police officers. Journalists at Mediazona covered the retrial from start to finish, and Meduza summarizes their reporting below.

The newspaper Mediapart published Oleg Orlov’s essay in French in November 2022, and Orlov then shared the Russian-language text on his Facebook page. In the piece, Orlov denounced the Putin regime for “mass murder” in Ukraine, the destruction of Russia’s future, and “backsliding into totalitarianism, this time fascism.” 

After his first trial ended in October 2023 with a fine of roughly $1,630, Orlov publicly maintained his innocence and refused to express regret for writing the essay. Two weeks later, prosecutors demanded a retrial, arguing that aggravating circumstances had come to light: Orlov had written the essay, they claimed, while guided by motives of “enmity against traditional Russian spiritual-moral and patriotic values" and “hatred towards Russian military personnel.” On January 31, 2024, investigators completed a re-investigation that included a new linguistic examination of Orlov’s text. Two days later, Russia’s Justice Ministry designated Orlov as a “foreign agent.” His retrial in Moscow began on February 16.

Oleg Orlov in his apartment during an interview with AFP on February 12, 2024
Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

How the retrial went down

Day 1, February 16

Orlov’s defense attorney, Katerina Tertukhina, challenged the premise of the case and asked the judge to return the matter to the prosecutor’s office on the grounds that investigators aren’t permitted to pursue a retrial by “filling in the gaps” of the evidence they collected. For example, investigators aren’t allowed to question new witnesses or order new expert opinions, which is what they did for Orlov’s retrial. Tertukhina also reiterated that prosecutors refused to specify exactly which words and expressions in Orlov’s essay constitute the “discrediting” of the Russian military.

Judge Elena Astakhova rejected Tertukhina’s requests.

Orlov declared that he would boycott the trial, except for his closing statement. Before parking himself at the defendant’s desk with a copy of Kafka’s The Trial, Orlov reasoned that discrediting the Russian armed forces is illegal only when they are acting in Russia’s national interests, which he argued they are not defending in Ukraine, where the ongoing invasion actually harms Russia’s interests, he added. Orlov said he refused to participate in the “obviously unfair” trial and would abstain from questioning in the spirit of Soviet dissidents like Tatiana Velikanova, Sergey Kovalev, Alexander Podrabinek, and Vyacheslav Bakhmin.

Day 2, February 21

The spirit of the USSR haunted the next day of proceedings, too. Prosecutors called two senior members of the pro-Kremlin “Veterans of Russia” movement, Vadim Mironenko and Sergey Bokhonko, to testify against Orlov. Their “Veterans” movement has a broadly “patriotic” agenda, and its members often file police reports against cultural figures who publicly criticize the authorities (like the rapper Morgenshtern). Mironenko and Bokhonko filed the report that launched the case against Oleg Orlov.

Mironenko told the court that he’s been following Orlov “and his associates and liberals” since the 1980s. He described the human rights activism of Memorial as “criminal and destructive,” arguing that Orlov sought to topple the state order in both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. He did not go into detail about Orlov’s essay on the Putin regime’s fascism.

When Orlov declined to question Mironenko and said prosecutors had effectively “invited a random guy from the street to testify,” the pro-Kremlin activist accused Orlov of “bragging” about his negotiating role during the deadly Budyonnovsk hospital hostage crisis in 1995 and “doing everything he could to spare the terrorists.” (Orlov was part of a group of politicians, journalists, and human rights activists who became voluntary hostages to guarantee the retreat of guerilla leader Shamil Basayev and his forces.) “The blood of the children of Belsan and Nord-Ost is on your hands,” said Mironenko, referring to subsequent attacks by Chechen terrorists. This accusation elicited indignation from Orlov’s supporters gathered outside in the hallway. 

The prosecution’s key witness was Maria Zueva, who supposedly conducted the updated linguistic examination of Orlov’s essay that confirmed the “aggravating circumstances” underpinning the retrial. However, it turned out that Zueva is a police lieutenant colonel without linguistic training. Her specialization is phonoscopic examination — a type of voice-evaluation forensics. Zueva also revealed in court that she participated in the reexamination of Orlov’s essay only as a trainee. The head of Zueva’s department, Marina Kozlova, was responsible for the analysis, but prosecutors declined to call her to the witness stand.

When defense attorney Katerina Tertukhina asked the lieutenant colonel to reconcile the examination’s reliance on “interpretation and generalization” with the official police handbook’s prohibition of such methods in expert assessments, Zueva refused to comment. When Tertukhina tried to question Zueva about the specifics of the reexamination, the judge stopped her, arguing that such questions would subject the courtroom to a “lecture on philology.” 

Day 3, February 26

Oleg Orlov and his defense attorney, Katerina Tertukhina, in court on February 26, 2024
Alexander Nemenov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Prosecutor Sergey Vorobyev asked the judge to sentence Orlov to two years and 11 months in prison, arguing that he did more than merely share his personal political opinions. “Orlov certainly understood and was aware of the meaning of the phrases published and the consequences of his actions,” Vorobyev said. However, Tertukhina immediately pointed out that prosecutors never specified which words or “phrases” in Orlov’s essay constitute his felony offense. She told the court that the state had essentially charged her client with “cultivating a false opinion” about the actions of the Russian military. “But what’s the threat in forming a false opinion? And how can an opinion even be false? It simply exists, or it doesn’t,” argued Tertukhina.

In his closing statement, Oleg Orlov said he thought about forgoing final remarks in light of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s recent death. “But then I thought about how these are all links in one chain,” he explained: “the death, or more precisely, the murder of Alexey, judicial persecutions of other critics of the regime (including mine), the suffocation of freedom in this country, and Russian troops invading Ukraine. And so I decided to speak up, after all.” Orlov added that events since November 2022, when he wrote the essay on fascism in Russia, have only confirmed his concerns. “It’s perfectly clear now that I didn’t exaggerate one bit,” he told the court.

Day 4, February 27

After Judge Elena Astakhova sentenced Orlov to two years and six months in prison for repeatedly “discrediting” the Russian army, police officers took him into custody and escorted him out of the building. On his way from the courtroom, supporters in the hallway cheered him and shouted, “We love you!”

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