June 25, 2024

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Russian authorities on Wednesday sought to impose a fine on a prominent human rights advocate on trial for criticizing the war in Ukraine, the latest step in a relentless crackdown on activists, independent journalists and opposition figures.

Oleg Orlov, co-chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights group Memorial, has been charged with publicly “discrediting” the Russian military after he wrote a Facebook post denouncing the invasion of Ukraine.

Under a law adopted shortly after the Kremlin sent troops across the border, it is a criminal offense if committed repeatedly within a year; Orlov has been fined twice for antiwar protests before facing criminal charges.

A Moscow court began hearing the case in March, and Orlov faced up to five years in prison if convicted. In closing arguments Wednesday, however, the prosecution asked the court to impose a fine of 250,000 rubles (about $2,500).

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“Thank God!” gasped Orlov’s wife when she heard that in court, according to the Russian news outlet Mediazona.

Memorial, one of the oldest and the most renowned Russian rights organizations, was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize along with imprisoned Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski and the Ukrainian organization Center for Civil Liberties.

Memorial was founded in the Soviet Union in 1987 to ensure that victims of Communist Party repression would be remembered. It has continued to compile information on human rights abuses and track the fate of political prisoners in Russia while facing a Kremlin crackdown in recent years.

The group had been declared a “foreign agent,” a designation that brings additional government scrutiny and carries strong pejorative connotations. Over the years, it was ordered to pay massive fines for alleged violations of the ”foreign agent” law.

Russia’s Supreme Court ordered it shut down in December 2021, a move that sparked an outcry at home and abroad.

Memorial and its supporters have called the trial against Orlov politically motivated. His defense team included Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.

Addressing the court Wednesday, Orlov rejected the charges and urged Russia “to return to a lawful path.”

“Only that can save our country from potential disasters,” he said.

After invading Ukraine in February 2022, the Kremlin doubled down on suppressing dissent, adopting legislation effectively outlawing any criticism of what it insisted on calling its “special military operation.”

Since then, nearly 8,000 Russians have faced misdemeanor charges and over 700 people have been implicated in criminal cases for speaking out about or protesting the war, according to the OVD Info human rights and legal aid group.

The authorities have also used the new law to target opposition figures, human rights activists and independent media. Top critics have been sentenced to long prison terms, rights groups have been forced to shut down operations, independent news sites were blocked and independent journalists have left the country, fearing prosecution.

Many of those exiles have been tried, convicted and sentenced to prison terms in absentia. The scale of the crackdown has been unprecedented in post-Soviet Russia.

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

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