Memorial raided, Oleg Orlov charged (March 2023)

The Russian authorities have carried out mass raids and searches of the office of the Memorial Society and its members, writes Halya Coynash on the website of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG).

Orlov protest in central Moscow (2022)
“A crazed Putin is pushing the world towards nuclear war”

Veteran activist and Memorial co-chairman Oleg ORLOV now faces criminal charges and a likely term of imprisonment for supposedly ‘discrediting’ the Russian armed forces.  The move comes a little over a year after Russia forcibly dissolved International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Centre, and almost exactly three months after Memorial, together with Ukraine’s Centre for Civil Liberties and the Belarusian Viasna Human Rights Centre (and its leader Ales Bialiatski), became laureate of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.

“Rehabilitating Nazism”

The pretext for the heavy-handed methods used on 21 March was a criminal investigation initiated on 3 March 2023 over alleged ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’.  This was supposedly based on a complaint from the Veterans of Russia NGO which claimed to have found around twenty names of those convicted of collaborating with Nazi Germany on Memorial’s massive “List of the Victims of Political Terror in the USSR”.

The current regime is using this charge in an attempt to discredit the internationally respected Memorial and the vital work it has done in studying the Soviet Terror and naming both its victims and the perpetrators.  Although the offensive against Memorial began shortly before Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014 and was doubtless prompted in part by Memorial’s stand on Russia’s aggression, the first complaints about names on the “List of Victims” came in //2021, around the time that the regime was seeking the organization’s dissolution.  In December 2021, Memorial reacted to complaints, echoed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, about three people on the List, by saying that the three had been removed.  In a list containing over three million names, Memorial pointed out, mistakes of this nature were surely inevitable. The same clearly applies now.

Russia’s attack on historians of the Terror, and particularly Yury DMITRIEV, head of the Karelian branch of Memorial, used scurrilous and entirely fabricated ‘child pornography’ charges to try to discredit both Dmitriev and Memorial.  The same method is now being used with this ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’ case, and the high-profile searches of a large number of members of Memorial.

Most of the initial reports about the events suggest that the criminal charges against Oleg Orlov were over this investigation.  Had there been any possible grounds, this would certainly have been the case.  Instead, however, all of those who faced raids on 21 March have, at most, ‘witness’ status in the so-called ‘rehabilitation of Nazism case’.

Charges against Oleg Orlov

It became clear late on Tuesday evening that Orlov had been charged under Article 280.3 § 1 of Russia’s Criminal Code, for repeatedly “discrediting Russia’s army”.  This criminal charge can be brought after two previous prosecutions under Article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences.  The charges are part of the draconian legislation aimed at silencing criticism of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which was rushed through within ten days of the 24 February 2022 invasion.

Alexander Cherkasov of Memorial reports that Orlov’s laptop was removed, as well as three hard disks; several flash drives; a telephone; Memorial stickers; a badge reading “No to the War”, which itself has led to people facing prosecution under Article 20.3.3 (Administrative Code) for ‘discrediting’ the Russian armed forces.  Police and FSB also removed the 1998 book, “Russia-Chechnya: A Chain of Errors and Crimes”, compiled by Orlov, Cherkasov and others.

Orlov was released under a signed undertaking not to leave the city. He explained that he had refused to sign a non-disclosure undertaking which he considers unwarranted and unlawful.  He had, however, been warned that, even without such a signed document, he still faced criminal liability for divulging details. Russia has increasingly used such undertakings in occupied Crimea to prevent lawyers from revealing the flawed nature of the charges against Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners, and the situation here seems similar.

It is, however, known that the charges this time are over the posting on his Facebook page of the Russian translation of his article “They wanted fascism. They got it” (English version), which was first published by the French Mediapart on 14 November 2022.  Cherkasov’s post, signed the ‘Memorial Centre for the Defence of Human Rights’, states that the Mediapart article is about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and that the criminal charge, under Article 280.3 § 1, was initiated by I. Savchenko from the Investigative Committee. 

The article is quoted as saying that

“The bloody war launched by Putin in Ukraine is not only the mass killing of people, the destruction of infrastructure, of the economy, of cultural sites of this wonderful country.  It is not only the crushing of the foundations of international law.  It is also the gravest of blows against Russia’s future. […] A country which, 30 years ago, moved from communist totalitarianism has descended back into totalitarianism, but now fascist.”

According to the warrant, Orlov was somewhere in Moscow when he suddenly conceived “the criminal plan to discredit the Russian Federation’s armed forces.”  There appears to already be a ‘expert opinion’ regarding this article.  The ‘experts’ found that it characterised the actions of the Russian armed forces as “linked with genocide; the killing of people’ the destruction of infrastructure and of the economy” and as “aimed against the existing constitutional order or violating the existing order.”

Oleg Orlov is now facing imprisonment not only for expressing his negative opinion about Russia’s war against Ukraine, but also for stating facts (the killing of civilians, destruction of infrastructure, etc.).  Russia’s attempt to outlaw facts by prosecuting those who report them seems especially grotesque given the International Criminal Court’s first arrest warrant against Putin over alleged war crimes in Ukraine and the damning report, just published by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council.  This mentioned the same actions as Orlov’s article, and spoke squarely of multiple violations of international humanitarian law, with many of these amounting to war crimes.

Speaking out against Russian aggression

The Russia regime’s attacks on the Memorial Society and Memorial HRC have always been linked to the organization’s willingness to speak out — against the Russian occupation of Crimea; its aggression against Ukraine; and its political persecution of Crimean Tatars and other Ukrainian citizens. Despite the attempt to muddy the issue by throwing in charges of ‘rehabilitating Nazism’, the same motives are clearly behind the new attack, launched against Memorial in general, and against its co-chairman Oleg ORLOV.