Court voids fine given to Russian activist for criticizing war and sends case back to prosecutors

By Isaac M December 15, 2023

A court in Russia on Thursday overturned a fine handed to a veteran human rights advocate for speaking out against the war in Ukraine and sent Oleg Orlov’s case back to prosecutors, who have sought to imprison him for three years instead.

Orlov, co-chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights group Memorial, was convicted of publicly “discrediting” the Russian military after he posted on Facebook an article he wrote that denounced the invasion of Ukraine. He has rejected the charge as politically motivated.

The Moscow City Court’s voiding of the fine did not represent a decision in his favor bur rather another step in a years-long, unrelenting crackdown on dissent in Russia that the Kremlin ratcheted up after sending troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

In October, a lower court fined Orlov 150,000 rubles (about $1,500 at the time), which is a significantly milder punishment compared to lengthy prison terms some other Russians have gotten for voicing their criticism of the war.

Orlov and his defense team appealed the sentence about two weeks later and discovered that the prosecution had appealed it, too, demanding to sentence the 71-year-old activist to three years in prison.

At the court hearing Thursday, the prosecutor, however, asked the judge to void the fine and send the case back to the prosecutors, saying that investigators failed to take into account Orlov’s motive.

The Moscow City Court sided with the prosecution Thursday and sent the case back to them for revision, overturning the earlier verdict and canceling the fine.

Orlov denounced the state’s appeal and said he was being prosecuted “for public criticism of the actions of the authorities.”

“In my view, the authorities are afraid. So afraid of the free will of the people that they destroyed the institution of elections, that they prohibited holding any kind of demonstrations for various bogus reasons, so much so that they imprison people over words,” independent Russian news site Mediazona quoted him as saying in the courtroom.

According to the outlet, Orlov brought a bag of personal belongings with him to court in case he was jailed immediately. He told reporters after the hearing that he doesn’t plan on unpacking it as the authorities appear intent on putting him behind bars.

Also on Thursday, the trial of a hard-line nationalist who also publicly criticized the Kremlin and its conduct in Ukraine opened in another Moscow court. Unlike Orlov, who opposed the war, Igor Strelkov accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of weakness and indecision in Ukraine.

Strelkov is a retired security officer who led Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and was convicted of murder in the Netherlands for his role in the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet that year.

He has called Putin a “nonentity” and a person of “cowardly mediocrity.” He was arrested in July on extremism charges and remained in custody since then. Strelkov faces up to five years in prison, if convicted.

Strelkov’s lawyer, Gadzhi Aliyev, told Russian state news agency Tass that his client “categorically disagreed with” the charges against him and refused to plead guilty Thursday. The trial is taking place behind closed doors, a usual practice when it comes to extremism charges.

From behind bars, Strelkov earlier this year announced through his allies that he has ambitions to run for president in next year. The 2024 election, which is scheduled for March 17. is widely expected to give Putin his fifth term in office. Strelkov is unlikely to get on the ballot, given the charges against him.

In the meantime, allies of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny have asked the U.N. Human Rights Committee to help them locate the politician, who hasn’t been seen or heard from in nine days.

Navalny, 47, is serving a 19-year prison term on extremism charges. His allies reported Monday that the penal colony east of Moscow where he was imprisoned no longer had him on its inmate roster and did not provide any information about where the politician may have been transferred.

Navalny was due to be transferred to a “special security” penal colony, a facility with the highest security level in the Russian penitentiary system. Russian prison transfers are notorious for taking a long time, sometimes weeks, during which there’s no access to prisoners and information about their whereabouts is limited or unavailable. Navalny could be transferred to one of a number of such penal colonies across Russia.

Navalny’s ally Maria Pevchikh on Thursday announced the request to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“What is happening with Alexei is, in fact, an enforced disappearance and a flagrant violation of his fundamental rights. Answers must be given,” she said.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.

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