Skip to main content
Oleg Orlov in court in Moscow, Russia, October 11, 2023.  © 2023 Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo

This week, a court in Moscow sentenced Oleg Orlov, a leading Russian rights defender, to two and a half years in prison, following a trial so Kafkaesque that the accused spent the court hearings engrossed in Kafka’s iconic novel “The Trial.” His crime, if you can call it that, was telling the truth about the Kremlin’s abusive war in Ukraine and the staggering crackdown on all forms of dissent inside Russia. At age 70, having devoted his life to exposing violations in conflict zones and helping victims seek accountability, Orlov is paying with his freedom for speaking out in the face of horror and injustice.

Orlov is a co-chair of Memorial, and one of the three recipients of the 2022 Noble Peace Prize. I first met him more than two decades ago, at a news conference where he and his colleagues were presenting their findings about Russian atrocities in Chechnya and demanding accountability for those responsible. Afterward, we lingered over coffee. His fact-based accounts and his raw dedication to justice blew my mind. I later had the privilege of working with him in Chechnya and other North Caucasus regions for many years and in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and 2016. Fearless, thorough, and empathetic, Orlov does stellar work in hostile environments, and no matter how dicey the situation, he always has your back.

Orlov worked under bombs in Chechnya, was a volunteer hostage, trading himself in to ensure release of civilians during a terrorist attack, and lived through a kidnapping, death threats, and beating by state security agents.

Recently, he had to watch the Russian authorities dismantle Memorial and other leading human rights organizations as part of the Kremlin’s assault on its critics. He also watched the government take control over all forms of public life, leaving no space for artistic expression, academic freedom, independent media, or even basic privacy.

He also had to watch as politicians and civic activists were sentenced to years in prison for criticizing the war, from denouncing Russian forces’ war crimes in Bucha to replacing supermarket price tags with information about Russia’s devastating siege of Mariupol.

This time, it’s Orlov who is going to prison. He knew full well what was coming. In his closing statement toward the end of his sham trial, he said that in contemporary Russia “an acquittal on this charge is impossible,” but emphasized he had “nothing to regret or repent for.”

I, on the other hand, have much to regret. I regret I couldn’t be in that Moscow courtroom when he was handcuffed and taken into custody immediately following the outrageous verdict and sentencing. Human Rights Watch, which had a presence in Russia for three decades, was kicked out by the authorities in spring 2022, shortly after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. As much as I wanted to be at Orlov’s trial, I knew I’d be at real risk of being detained and charged – all of our reporting on Russian abuses in Ukraine fits the framework of the same draconian war censorship legislation under which Orlov and hundreds of others have already been prosecuted.

Not being able to support your close friend and colleague, not see him in person before he is dragged to prison is unbearable. But Orlov urged his supporters not to succumb to despair. Recalling Alexei Navalny—the leading Russian opposition politician for whose death in a penal colony earlier this month the Kremlin bears responsibility—Orlov said, “Navalny urged us, ‘Don’t give up.’ We remember that. What I can add is this: do not lose heart, do not lose optimism. Because truth is on our side. Those who have dragged our country into the abyss where it is now represent the old, decrepit, outdated order, they have no vision for the future – only false narratives of the past, delusions of ‘imperial greatness.’… But we live in the 21st century, the present and the future are with us, and our victory is inevitable.”

Oleg Orlov is right, truth is on our side. We make sure that everyone responsible for Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine and for the tyranny at home are held accountable. For that, and for his sake, we cannot despair.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country