On June 8, a trial opened in Moscow contre Oleg Orlov, 70, prominent human rights defender in Russia, co-president of the Center for the Defense of Human Rights Memorial. He is on trial for having "discredited the action of the Russian army" in Ukraine. A law passed shortly after the attack launched by Moscow in February 2022, prohibiting any form of criticism of the Russian military.
After a short first hearing, which was only formal, a second hearing was held on July 3. For now, if new charges are not brought against him, he faces a three-year prison sentence.
His entire life has been devoted to the defense of human rights, first in the ending USSR, then in the Russia of Boris Yeltsin, especially during the first war in Chechnya (1994-1996) and, since 2000, in that of Vladimir Putin, where civil society has been gradually, and increasingly rapidly over the past few years, brought under control by the regime. Going back on his commitment, which has earned him countless legal problems and also physical attacks, allows us to better understand the extent of the task to which human rights defenders have devoted themselves in Russia for decades, often at the risk of their freedom, sometimes of their lives.
A life in the service of human rights
The vocation of Oleg Orlov manifested itself very early. In 1979, while working as a biologist at the Institute of Plant Physiology, he printed after work leaflets denouncing the war in Afghanistan and posted them in building entrances, bus stations and telephone booths. In 1981, he protested in the same way against the banning of the Solidarność trade union in Poland. He would later explain that he had done so, taking considerable risks in the context of the Soviet dictatorship, because he felt it was not possible for him to remain silent.
It is only natural that, at the end of the 1980s, he was one of the founders of the NGO Memorial. Members of this organization originally created to maintain the memory of the victims of Stalinist repression and preventing a return to such repression soon realized that their mission went hand in hand with the protection of human rights in contemporary Russia.
In 1990, Orlov left his profession as a biologist to join the Parliamentary Commission for Human Rights, officially established at the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. It was not easy for him to become an official representative of the state in this way, but Sergei Kovalev, one of the very great figures of the dissident and former Soviet political prisoner, convinced him to accept: "We must take advantage of this opportunity, it may not last long."
He was not mistaken: Oleg Orlov only remained in this position for three years, during which his activity yielded many results. The Human Rights Commission has notably drafted important laws on the rehabilitation of victims of political repression, on refugees and on the penitentiary system.
In 1993, after the bloody conflict between President Boris Yeltsin and Parliament, Orlov decides to leave an official position, to concentrate on his work within Memorial. That same year, the NGO set up a Human Rights Center, specifically aimed at documenting the violations committed by the government and providing assistance, including legal aid, to the victims. Orlov quickly takes the lead.
Since then, not a single armed conflict in which Russia has been involved has escaped the vigilance of this organization. and Oleg Orlov in particular : the two wars in Chechnya, the war against Georgia in 2008, the war in the Donbass in 2014-2016.
Do not be silent about the crimes of power
"The 'cleansing' of the village was accompanied by killings of civilians, violence against those arrested, looting and burning of houses. It was during this 'cleansing' that most of the villagers were killed and most of the houses destroyed. […]
Machine gun fire from armored personnel carriers and tanks entering the village also caused many casualties among the villagers. April 7, 1er day of the operation, two men aged 75 and 34 were killed when the soldiers entered the village. The next day, gunfire from passing armored personnel carriers or tanks killed an 18-year-old girl, a 61-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy […]. Numerous witnesses reported that Russian soldiers deliberately threw grenades into basements and rooms of houses, as well as into yards, knowing or suspecting that people were there. […]
On April 8, a 37-year-old man, injured in the bombardment the day before, was detained at his home with his brother to be "filtered". During the convoy, other detainees carried him on a stretcher. Near the station, on the orders of the conveyors, they put the stretcher on the ground and the soldiers shot the wounded man. On the same day, a 62-year-old man was shot at close range by soldiers in a house, then doused with gasoline and set on fire."
This text does not describe the war crimes committed by the Russian army in Butcha or Irpin. It is taken from a report by the Memorial Human Rights Center, of which Orlov was one of the authors, on the events in the Chechen village of Samashki April 7-8, 1995, during the First Chechen War. Since then, the modus operandi of the Russian army has not changed much.
In Chechnya, Oleg Orlov took all the risks. Thus, he took part in June 1995 in the negotiations with terrorists who, under the command of Shamil Basayev, had taken hostages in the city of Budionnovsk, in the North Caucasus. At the end of these exchanges, members of the group of negotiators, including Orlov, volunteered to remain in the hands of the commando as hostages, in exchange for the release of the 1 hostages held by the Basayev group.
In 2007 he is kidnapped with a group of journalists by masked armed men in a hotel in Ingushetia, still in the Russian Caucasus. Driven out of town to a field, they were threatened with execution and eventually beaten, their captors demanding that they leave Ingushetia and never return.
The modus operandi of the repressive forces in the North Caucasus has not changed since these years, as evidenced by the violent attack on Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milachina and lawyer Alexander Nemov committed on July 4, 2023, while they were in Chechnya to follow the trial of a woman, Zarema Mousaïeva, whose only wrong was to be the mother of opponents of the local satrap, Ramzan Kadyrov, and who was moreover sentenced that same July 4 to five and a half years in prison.
During all these years, Oleg Orlov saw his colleagues kidnapped, tortured and murdered, Memorial offices in the North Caucasus burned down, Memorial Human Rights Center declared foreign agent in 2014 by the Russian authorities, then dissolved on December 29, 2021. This dissolution officially entered into force on April 5, 2022, a few months before the award to Memorial, jointly with the Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski and the Ukrainian NGO Center for Civil Liberties, of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.
For thirty years, the Centre will have documented thousands of cases of human rights violations and attempted to hold accountable those responsible. It was obvious that with the massive invasion of Ukraine, the Russian authorities would decide to permanently liquidate such an organization and silence its members, pushing them out or sending them behind bars. However, this heavy context never discouraged Oleg Orlov from continuing his work in defense of human rights.
Protest against the war in Ukraine from Russia
On February 26, 2022, two days after Russia began to invade Ukraine, he walked to the Russian parliament, carrying a sign on which he had drawn a dove of peace. He did not stay there more than five minutes, arrested by the police. Did he think that such a dove drawn on an A4 sheet would stop the war? Or would awaken the conscience of the Russian deputies?
Sure, he's not that naive, but once again he couldn't keep his mouth shut. Thus, between February 24 and May 2022, he took to the streets five times to demonstrate alone, and ended up each time at the police station. On these placards he had written: "Peace to Ukraine, freedom to Russia"; "Putin's madness is pushing humanity towards nuclear war"; "Our refusal to know the truth and our silence make us accomplices in the crime"; "USSR 1945, country victorious over fascism; Russia 2022, country of triumphant fascism".
Each time, a Russian court found him guilty, first of breaking assembly rules and then of violating hastily passed new laws that tightened censorship of any opposition to the war. Each of these convictions gives rise to fines and, above all, is entered in his criminal record; that is why, when in November 2022, Orlov publishes a article on the French site Mediapart where he compared Putin's regime to a fascist regime, an article of which he posted the Russian version on his Facebook page, the repressive apparatus immediately seized on it and charged him with having "discredited repeated" on the actions of the Russian army.
He now faces up to three years in prison. It is quite possible that this is only the beginning of a long persecution. The Russian authorities, who easily amnesty from assassins, harshly punish the remarks made against the regime.
Oleg Orlov was not taken into custody before his trial. He is subject to an undertaking not to leave the country, as if the authorities were giving him to understand that it is not too late to escape prison by leaving Russia clandestinely. But throughout his life, despite the multiple pressures he suffered, the activist never wanted to emigrate. Although knowing he was threatened, he always considered that his place was there, in Moscow and everywhere on the ground.
Today, he did not deviate from this choice. Unlike the Soviet policy in the face of dissent, which essentially prevented opponents of the regime from leaving the territory, or sometimes used them as exchange currencies, the Russian authorities now push all those who criticize them to leave their country. They are carrying out searches to tell certain opponents that their only choice now is to flee or incarcerate. They leave the borders open, hoping to "purify" the country of all those who oppose the war and the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin. Oleg Orlov did not want to give in to this blackmail. He stayed and continued, tirelessly, to fight for human rights. At the risk of losing his freedom for many years.
What happens to Memorial, the organization that has been his for all these years, now liquidated? His name was not chosen by chance: the memory cannot be liquidated, regardless of the efforts of the Russian law enforcement and judicial apparatus. The Memorial Human Rights Center became the Memorial Human Rights Center (organization created, but not registered, which is currently a legal status in Russia). Its objectives remain the same and its members continue its action, today as yesterday. All the more so since these rights have never been so flouted. Oleg Orlov is there to remind us.
This article was co-written with Natalia Morozova (FIDH and Memorial Human Rights Center).