Russia jails rights campaigner from Nobel-winning group

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MOSCOW (Reuters) -Veteran Russian rights activist Oleg Orlov was sentenced to 2-1/2 years in prison on Tuesday for "discrediting the armed forces" by protesting against the war in Ukraine and accusing President Vladimir Putin of leading a descent into fascism.

Orlov, a leader of the rights group Memorial that won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022, was charged after taking part in anti-war demonstrations and writing an article entitled "They wanted fascism. They got it."

"The verdict showed that my article was accurate and true," Orlov, 70, said as he was led away in handcuffs after being sentenced. He was applauded by supporters in the Moscow courtroom, including representatives from Western embassies.

Memorial, founded in 1989, has defended freedom of speech and documented human rights abuses from the time of Soviet leader Josef Stalin to the present. After being designated as a "foreign agent", it was banned and dissolved in Russia in 2021.

The prosecution said Orlov had shown "political hatred of Russia". In his closing remarks to the trial on Monday, he decried the "strangulation of freedom" in the country, which he referred to as a "dystopia".

Memorial said in a statement: "The sentence against Oleg Orlov is an attempt to drown out the voice of the human rights movement in Russia and any criticism of the state. But we will continue our work."

It said Orlov was a genuine Russian patriot. "However, in modern Russia everything is turned on its head: war is peace, calls for peace are a crime, and a warning that the state cultivates violence is a 'hate crime'."

Orlov was charged under laws passed shortly after the start of the Ukraine war that prescribed prison terms for those found guilty of discrediting the armed forces or spreading false information about them.

The United States condemned the sentence.

"Mr Orlov was sentenced today to two-and-a-half years in prison simply for peacefully and courageously speaking out against Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine," U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

Some 32 human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also decried the sentence.

"The Kremlin should not be allowed to eliminate its critics in sham trials," Tanya Lokshina, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement posted on the group's website.

"International actors should do everything in their power to free Orlov and hold Russia accountable for its persistent and outrageous human rights violations before it's too late.”

Putin has urged Russians to show unity and look out for pro-Western traitors as his forces conduct what he calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine.

His critics say the banning of Memorial, which rose to prominence by documenting Stalinist crimes and working to rehabilitate their victims, is part of a wider effort to stamp out dissent and rewrite the country's history.

Putin's leading critics are all in prison or abroad. His best known opponent, Alexei Navalny, died in a penal colony on Feb. 16.

Orlov was initially fined 150,000 roubles ($1,628) by a district court last year, but a retrial was ordered after he appealed and prosecutors asked for a jail sentence.

His wife Tatiana Kasatkina said outside the court: "He and I created Memorial together ... But the most important thing that we have created is a team. A team that will work regardless of whether Oleg is free or not. So we will work. We will live."

($1 = 92.1275 roubles)

(Reporting by Reuters; Additional reporting by Simon Lewis in Washington and Lidia Kely in Melbourne; Writing by Lucy Papachristou and Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Alison Williams and Stephen Coates)