war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Relentless torment of 71-year-old Memorial Co-Chair Oleg Orlov, imprisoned for condemning Russia’s war against Ukraine

Halya Coynash
Russia is not content to imprison the world-renowned human rights defender, but is also placing his life and health in danger
Oleg Orlov outside the court on 26 February Photo Darya Kryl
Oleg Orlov outside the court on 26 February Photo Darya Kryl

After imprisoning Oleg Orlov, world-renowned Co-Head of Memorial, for his criticism of its war of aggression against Ukraine. Russia is jeopardizing his health. Orlov, who will turn 71 on 4 April, is being shuttled each day between prison and court, and held from morning to night in conditions which would be gruelling for men half his age.  This has resulted in an alarming deterioration in his health and is also enabling the authorities to block proper communication with his lawyer.

Orlov has been held in a SIZO [remand prison] since 27 February 2024, when ‘judge’ Yelena Astakhova from the Golovinsky district court in Moscow sentenced him to two and a half years in a medium security prison colony.  His ‘trial’, on a charge of ‘discrediting Russia’s armed forces’, was primarily over an article, originally published in a French newspaper, in which Orlov condemned Russia’s aggression and war crimes and spoke of the country’s descent into fascist totalitarianism.

This was a remake of the original ‘trial’ in October 2023 which had resulted in a conviction, but ‘only’ a massive fine.  Astakhova was presumably chosen for her willingness to pass a politically motivated real term of imprisonment as demanded.  Memorial’s lawyers believe that Astakhova is continuing to provide such services now through her insistence that Orlov is brought, by prison convoy, on all working days to the court to acquaint himself with the case material.  They assume that this is in order to get the case through appeal stage as quickly as possible, with Astakhova having received orders ‘from above’ to this effect.  Orlov is being taken from the SIZO every morning, before breakfast, and returned only at night.  This is often for no reason as the material has not been prepared, with Orlov held for the entire day in the appalling conditions of the convoy room.  Deprived of hot food and rest, and held in such conditions, it is hardly surprising that the 71-year-old human rights defender has a cold which is not going away and may well be causing the loss of hearing he has noticed. By insisting on these senseless trips every day, Astakhova and/or those whose orders she is following are preventing Orlov from receiving any medical care in the SIZO.  They are also, illegally, depriving him of his right to confidential consultations with his lawyer.  Memorial reports that for the past two weeks, the lawyer has been unable to speak privately to Orlov and help prepare for the appeal, with the convoy officers listening and controlling any communication between lawyer and client.  They have prohibited them from talking about anything unrelated to the prosecution and insist on reading every document that the lawyer and Orlov pass to each other.

Memorial first reported the situation on 27 March, stating then that the defence had sent a complaint over this inhuman treatment to the president of the Golovinsky district court.  As of 1 April, there had been no response and no let-up in the torment.

Russia’s attack on Oleg Orlov coincided with its mounting offensive against the Memorial Society and Memorial Human Rights Centre.  The charges against Orlov laid in March 2023 were under Article 280.3 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code (‘discrediting Russia’s armed forces and its operations’ }.  This is one of the four administrative and criminal charges rushed into legislation within 10 days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.  The excuse for criminal charges was that Orlov had already been convicted in administrative prosecutions of the same basic charge (Article 20.3.3 of the RF code of administrative offences).  

The charge was mainly over his posting on his Facebook page of the Russian translation of his article “They wanted fascism. They got it”, which was published by the French Mediapart on 14 November 2022.  The article states, for example, that “The bloody war launched by Putin in Ukraine is not only the mass killing of people, the destruction of infrastructure, of the economy, of cultural sites of this wonderful country.  It is not only the crushing of the foundations of international law.  It is also the gravest of blows against Russia’s future. <> A country which, 30 years ago, moved from communist totalitarianism has descended back into totalitarianism, but now fascist.”

 It is possible that the same Golovinsky district court, under judge Kristina Kostryukova, convicted Orlov on 11 October 2023, but ‘only’ imposed a steep fine because of the international attention that the trial had caused.  Although the prosecutors  - Svetlana Kildysheva and M. I. Shcherbakova – had themselves only asked for a (steeper) fine, by 26 October, the public prosecutor had  lodged an appeal, claiming that the sentence was ‘too lenient’ and demanding the full three-year real term of imprisonment envisaged under Article 280.3 § 1.  Then on 14 December 2023, the prosecutor’s office changed its position and asked the Moscow City Court to send the case back to the prosecutor as the investigator had, purportedly, not established the motive of the so-called ‘crime’.  The court duly obliged, revoking the sentence and returning the case to the prosecutor.

By 30 January 2024, the new ‘investigation’ was complete with the prosecution now claiming to have found a new ‘motive’. The charge remained the same, under Article 280.3 § 1, but there was, purportedly, an aggravating circumstance, namely ‘ideological enmity towards traditional spiritual-moral and patriotic values” and also enmity towards “the social group of ‘military servicemen of the Russian Federation’s armed forces”. 

The new ‘trial’ was so clearly preposterous that Orlov refused to taken part in it, appearing only for his final address on 26 February 2024.  As reported, he stated during this address, that he had used the time thus saved by re-reading Franz Kafka’s “Trial’ and pointed to the similarities. He was charged with ‘repeat discrediting’ of Russia’s armed forces, however no attempt had been made to explain how such ‘discrediting’ differs from legitimate criticism.  “We’re charged with circulating knowingly false information, with nobody bothering to demonstrate that it is false – this is exactly how the Soviet regime behaved, with any criticism labelled lies.  And our attempts to prove that the information is true are grounds for criminal prosecution”.   

If you are able to write in Russian, please write on Oleg Orlov’s behalf to the addresses which Memorial has provided

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