Prominent Russian human rights activist Oleg Orlov gets 2 1/2 years in prison for criticizing war

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A veteran human rights campaigner who criticized the war in Ukraine was convicted Tuesday by a Moscow court of “repeatedly discrediting” the Russian military and sentenced to 2½ years in prison.

Oleg Orlov, 70, co-chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights group Memorial, had rejected the case against him as politically motivated, saying in his closing statement: “I don’t regret anything and I don’t repent anything." He also denounced the war again.

Orlov was handcuffed and taken into custody after the verdict, concluding a retrial in which he earlier was convicted and fined. Underscoring the low tolerance for criticism of the war by the government of President Vladimir Putin, the prosecution had appealed, seeking a harsher punishment.

The prosecution claimed that Orlov was motivated to write the anti-war article by hostility toward “traditional Russian spiritual, moral and patriotic values” and hatred of the military, according to the independent Russian news outlet Mediazona.

In a statement, Memorial called Orlov's sentence “an attempt to drown out the voice of the human rights movement in Russia and any criticism of the state.” It vowed to continue its work.

The verdict drew a crowd of dozens of supporters, including 18 Western diplomats, Mediazona reported.

“I am alarmed and concerned by today’s outcome. Oleg Orlov has personally fought for the rights of Russians for more than 45 years,” U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy said in a statement. “In previous times, his efforts have been awarded at the highest levels. In today’s Russia he is being locked away for them.”

In October 2023, a Moscow court had convicted Orlov and fined him 150,000 rubles (about $1,500 at the time), a significantly milder punishment when compared to the long prison terms others have received for criticizing the war.

Both the defense and the prosecution appealed, and a higher court voided the fine, sending the case back to the prosecutors. The new trial began earlier this month, another step in an unrelenting crackdown on dissent that the Kremlin ratcheted up after sending troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

Also on Tuesday, a court in Grozny, the capital of Russia’s largely Muslim republic of Chechnya, sentenced a man to 3 1/2 years in prison for publicly burning a Quran in front of a mosque. The Russian state news agency Tass reported that Nikita Zhuravel admitted he did so on the instructions of Ukrainian special services in return for a payment.

In September 2023, Chechnya’s authoritarian leader Ramzan Kadyrov posted a video of his son appearing to beat Zhuravel in detention. Kadyrov praised his son for “defending his religion."

Tuesday also marked the ninth anniversary of the killing of Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic Russian opposition figure. The 55-year-old former deputy prime minister was shot to death as he walked along a bridge adjacent to the Kremlin on the night of Feb. 27, 2015.

A makeshift memorial on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge where Nemtsov was slain still draws mourners who leave bouquets of flowers. His death was a blow to the political opposition, as was the death in prison this month of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

An officer in the security forces of the Kremlin-backed Kadyrov was sentenced to 20 years for firing the shots that killed Nemtsov. Four other men were sentenced to 11 to 19 years for their involvement.