One of Russia’s best-known human rights defenders was sentenced by a Moscow court Tuesday to two and a half years in prison for criticizing the war in Ukraine, amid a continuing crackdown by the Kremlin on dissent.

Oleg Orlov, 70, has long been a leading voice in Russia’s human rights movement and a fearless critic of repression under President Vladimir Putin. He has for two decades been one of the leaders of the Memorial rights group, which commemorates victims of political repression and in 2022 shared the Nobel Peace Prize before being outlawed in Russia.

He was sentenced for an op-ed in a French newspaper in which he condemned the war in Ukraine and criticized Russia’s current regime as “fascist.”

He was convicted under a law introduced after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion that forbids “discrediting Russia’s armed forces” and which has been used to criminalize criticism of the war or war crimes committed by Russian troops.

PHOTO: Longtime activist with Memorial, Russia's most prominent rights group, and human rights campaigner Oleg Orlov speaks during an AFP interview in Moscow on March 29, 2022.

Longtime activist with Memorial, Russia’s most prominent rights group, and human rights campaigner Oleg Orlov speaks during an AFP interview in Moscow on March 29, 2022.

Yuri Kadobnov/AFP via Getty Images

Orlov, in a powerful closing statement, dismissed the trial against him, saying it was now forbidden in Russia to criticize the authorities.

“I appeal to you, your honor, and to the members of the prosecution. Are you not yourselves frightened? Not frightened to observe what our country is turning into, which you probably also love? Not frightened that not only you and your children maybe will have to live in this absurdity, this anti-utopia but also, God forbid, your grandchildren?” he said.

Russia’s supreme court ordered the closure of Memorial in 2021, in what was seen by many observers as a watershed moment in Putin’s crackdown on freedoms in the country.

Orlov in court Tuesday also condemned the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in prison last week and urged people to follow Navalny’s example and not despair.

“We remember the call of Alexey — ‘Don’t give up,'” he said. “From myself I add: and keep your spirits up, don’t lose optimism. For truth is on our side.”

Orlov said responsibility for Navalny’s death lay with Putin’s regime, saying “whatever the specific circumstances of his death might have been, this was murder.”

Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner and opposition leader who became Putin’s most formidable challenger, died in an Arctic prison colony last week after being held in Russian jails since 2021. His family and team have accused Putin of murdering him. Authorities finally handed over Navalny’s body to his mother on Sunday, but his team says they don’t yet know where or when a funeral will take place, saying funeral homes in Moscow are unwilling to help them over fears of the authorities.

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