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Russia jails activist as Kremlin widens crackdown on critics

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Russia has sentenced a prominent human rights activist to two-and-a-half years in prison, in the latest sign of President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly brutal crackdown on critics of his regime.

Oleg Orlov, head of the banned rights group Memorial, was charged with “discrediting” the Russian military for an anti-war article he wrote entitled: “They wanted fascism. They got it.”

The 70-year-old was initially fined Rbs150,000 ($16,357) for the article last autumn. However, prosecutors rejected the sentencing, arguing it was not sufficiently severe. A higher court cancelled the ruling and a swift retrial began this month.

In his closing statement before the verdict, Orlov said he had “committed no crime”. He noted that some of his friends had accused him of hyperbole when he had initially published the article more than a year ago, but now his descriptions of a “totalitarian” and “fascist” regime were more apt.

“Now it’s absolutely clear: I wasn’t exaggerating at all. The state controls not only the public, political and economic life. It also seeks total control over culture, over scientific thought and invades private life,” he declared.

Orlov linked the retrial to other efforts by Russian authorities that collectively were forcing the country “deeper and deeper into this darkness”, including the crackdown on Russia’s LGBT movement and the banning of certain books that carried any tenuous link to criticism of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

He called the recent death of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in an Arctic penal colony “a murder, whatever the specific circumstances of his death might have been”.

“Even after his death, the authorities are at war with Navalny,” Orlov said. “They fear him even in death — and have all the reasons to be afraid. They are destroying pop-up memorials to him. And those who are doing this hope that it will demoralise the part of Russian society that continues to feel a responsibility for their country. But these hopes are misplaced.”

Orlov spent more than two decades as head of the rights group Memorial until Russia’s supreme court ordered its closure in December 2021, two months before the Ukraine war began, citing the organisation’s repeated violations.

Memorial shared the 2022 Nobel peace prize for its “outstanding effort to document war crimes, human right abuses and the abuse of power”.

During his retrial, in which prosecutors requested a sentence of two years and 11 months, Orlov declined to mount a defence. Instead, he spent most of his time in court rereading Franz Kafka’s The Trial. He used his closing statement to warn the judge and prosecutors of the ripple effects of their actions and the eventual possibility of retribution.

“I’m addressing you, your honour, and the prosecution. Aren’t you afraid to witness what our country is turning into? Aren’t you afraid that not only you and your children but, God forbid, your grandchildren will have to live in this absurdity, in this dystopia?

“Doesn’t the obvious occur to you — that sooner or later, the roller of repression might roll over those who started it and moved it forward?”

Orlov’s sentence was condemned by western diplomats, including Lynne Tracy, US ambassador to Moscow, who said she was “alarmed” by his imprisonment.

“The Kremlin’s constricting oppression of its people’s constitutionally guaranteed rights is dragging the country back into a dark, dangerous and isolated place,” she said in a statement.

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