Rights campaigner calls Russia 'fascist' in court

Russian rights activist Orlov attends an appeal hearing in Moscow
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By Lucy Papachristou

LONDON (Reuters) -Veteran human rights activist Oleg Orlov decried what he called the "strangulation of freedom" in Russia at a court hearing on Monday as prosecutors sought to have him jailed for nearly three years for discrediting the armed forces.

Orlov, 70, has served for more than two decades as one of the leaders of the Memorial human rights organisation, which won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022 a year after being banned and dissolved in Russia.

In court on Monday he condemned the authorities for their clampdown on political dissent, the death in prison of prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and the conflict in Ukraine.

A district court last year fined Orlov 150,000 roubles ($1,616) - a relatively light sentence for a critic of the Ukraine war, due to his age and health - after he penned an article saying that Russia under President Vladimir Putin had descended into fascism.

A retrial was ordered after Orlov appealed that verdict and prosecutors then sought a jail sentence of two years and 11 months, accusing him of "political hatred of Russia", which he denied, Memorial said.

It said a final verdict on the case and sentencing would be announced on Tuesday.

In his closing speech to the court, Orlov maintained that he had committed no crime and regretted nothing, instead castigating the "totalitarian" and "fascist" Russian state.

His comments were broadcast on the Telegram channel of Memorial, where authorities have cracked down on what remains of independent media.

"All these are links in the same chain: the death, or rather, the massacre of Alexei (Navalny), the judicial reprisals against other critics of the regime, including me, the strangulation of freedom in the country, the entry of Russian troops into Ukraine."

Speaking to the judge and the prosecutor, Orlov said: "Isn't it scary to watch what our country, which you probably also love, is turning into? Isn't it scary that in this absurdity, in this dystopia, maybe not only you and your children will have to live, but also, God forbid, your grandchildren?"

Russia has intensified a long-running crackdown on all forms of political dissent in the two years since it invaded Ukraine and criminalised any deviation from the government line on what Moscow calls its special military operation.

The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Russia, Mariana Katzarova, called Orlov's trial "an orchestrated attempt to silence the voices of human rights defenders in Russia" and a "textbook example of a repressive system."

Memorial, founded in 1989, has documented human rights abuses from the time of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to the present and defended freedom of speech, with a focus on identifying and honouring individual victims.

($1 = 92.8025 roubles)

(Reporting by Reuters in Moscow and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Geneva; Writing by Lucy Papachristou; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Philippa Fletcher)