Russian Human Rights Activist Indicted for Criticizing War in Ukraine

Published: 03 May 2023

Oleg Orlov MemorialOleg Orlov of the former human rights group Memorial has been indicted by Russian prosecutors on charges of discrediting the country’s armed forces. (Photo: Анна Артемьева, "Новая Газета", Wikimedia, License)

By Henry Pope

A prominent and outspoken Russian human rights activist has been arrested, with prosecutors indicting him on charges of discrediting the country’s armed forces, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported Monday.

Oleg Orlov is co-chair of the former human rights group Memorial, which was dissolved by the Russian government last year as the Kremlin sought to censor its critics and the media. The group was shut down five weeks after Russia launched its full-scale invasion into Ukraine.

In late March 2022, Russia’s parliament banned any public criticism of the government and its armed forces. To further suppress any negative public discourse regarding the country’s attack on Ukraine, the government also outlawed any mention of the conflict as a “war” or an “invasion.”

Instead, Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin concocted the now-famous propaganda message that the war be referred to as a “special military operation,” a phrase that all domestic media publications are forced to use.

“These new laws are part of Russia’s ruthless effort to suppress all dissent and make sure the population does not have access to any information that contradicts the Kremlin’s narrative about the invasion of Ukraine,” said Hugh Williamson, HRW’s Europe and Central Asia director.

During the April 5 hearing, in which the Russian Court of Appeal confirmed Memorial’s dissolution, prosecutors justified the decision by claiming that the group’s activities included the “rehabilitation of Nazism,” HRW said.

This is the same line that the Kremlin used to justify its invasion of Ukraine. Ironically, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a Jew.

But despite the human rights group’s forced demise and the new laws against promoting the truth in Ukraine, Orlov chose to remain in Russia and continue his advocacy for human rights. He did so by staging one-man anti-war protests and by critiquing the country’s downward spiral towards totalitarianism on social media.

And so, a little over a month ago, Russian prosecutors detained Orlov to inform him that they had opened a criminal investigation into his alleged acts of discrediting the country’s armed forces.

Authorities also conducted searches of his home and the homes of his family members, HRW said.

If convicted, Orlov faces years in prison.