“Behind bars, we are shielded from foreign influence”. Memorial’s Oleg Orlov speaks in court about his “foreign agent” status
Павел Васильев
“Behind bars, we are shielded from foreign influence”. Memorial’s Oleg Orlov speaks in court about his “foreign agent” status
29 May 2024, 19:42

Photo: Alexandra Astakhova / Mediazona

Zamoskvoretsky district court in Moscow upheld the decision to recognise Oleg Orlov, co-chairman of Memorial, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights organisation, as a “foreign agent.” Orlov participated in the hearing via video link from the Syzran pre-trial detention centre—in February, the 71-year-old activist was sentenced to 2.5 years in a penal colony for an anti-war article titled “They wanted fascism. They got it.”

We are publishing the full transcript of Orlov’s speech in court, in which he suggests that the Ministry of Justice—fully in line with the anti-legal spirit of the law on “foreign agents”—add all Russian citizens to the notorious registry, except for those already in prison.

Thank you very much.

Your Honour, in my opinion, this is all quite ridiculous. I am speaking from prison, not just any prison in Moscow, but from the cold basement of the Syzran pre-trial detention centre, where I was quite unexpectedly transferred over a month ago from Moscow. And I still have at least two more years to spend in captivity.

And now here I am, trying to challenge the absurd inclusion of myself in an equally absurd “foreign agents” registry. I have my doubts, Your Honour. Isn’t prison the right place for a “foreign agent”? Isn’t it exactly where a “foreign agent,” that is, myself, belongs, if this very “foreign agent,” that is, I, dare to demand that the Russian Constitution be observed in Russia and advocate for the realisation of the rights and freedoms guaranteed to our country’s citizens by this fundamental law?

These are the doubts that come to me here in prison. I have carefully studied the document the Ministry of Justice representative refers to here, namely, the objections—here they are—to the administrative appeal prepared by my representative.

In this document, the Ministry of Justice proves the correctness of including one Orlov O.P. in this registry and the correctness of my continued presence there. Arguments are presented, which I will try to dwell on in more detail later. We have already heard some of the arguments today. But first, allow me to make some assumptions. It seems to me that the Ministry of Justice proceeds from an axiom that, from their point of view, requires no proof. Namely: in today’s Russia, one can demand compliance with one’s own Constitution only under foreign influence, let alone criticise public authorities or question the absolute benevolence of any decisions made by this government for the people of our great Motherland.

This is exactly what the Ministry of Justice believes, in my opinion. This is the axiom they proceed from. Nevertheless, despite this axiom, the Ministry of Justice did provide some arguments in their objections, because providing no arguments at all would be too much, even for our Ministry of Justice.]

So, what did they cite as evidence that I am engaged in political activity? It has already been mentioned here that to get into the “foreign agents” registry, it is not enough to be under foreign influence; one must also engage in political activity, including “disseminating, using modern information technologies, opinions on decisions made by public authorities [concerning] the policies they pursue.”

So, what does the Ministry of Justice cite as evidence of political activity? It refers to the fact that I am the co-chairman of the Memorial Human Rights Centre—and I understand the logic very well.

Indeed, in current times, in [current] Russian times, the very phrase “human rights protection” looks like something purely politically-oppositional, seditious, undermining the foundations and stability of the government. The Ministry of Justice also refers to the fact that, in addition, I am a member of the board of the Public Verdict foundation. I’d like to remind you what this foundation does. It helps protect people, including prisoners—which is quite important in my current position—from unlawful violence by various kinds of security forces.

Again, I understand the position of the Ministry of Justice officials very well; such activities seem absolutely inappropriate to them in today’s Russia, where it is the siloviki who call the shots across the country. Further, the Ministry of Justice cites my interviews and comments to the media, in which I do indeed say everything I think about these very public authorities in our country and the policies they pursue, as evidence of my political activity.

Well, what can be done if an anti-constitutional, anti-legal law classifies any public assessment of the activities of this very government as political activity? It would seem that I have nothing to object to the Ministry of Justice. However, Your Honour, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that I am now in prison—here, you can see the bars. Of course, being in prison has not changed my position one bit, nor has it added a gram of respect or love for the current Russian government. But now, from here, from behind bars, barbed wire, and the wall, I can hardly lead public organisations or talk to journalists.

I would very much like to talk to them, as there is a lot to say—but the walls and bars do not allow it. So the question is, how can I engage in political activity from here? I think the Ministry of Justice would object that my speech in this court right now is also political activity. So, do I have nothing at all to object to the Ministry of Justice?

I guess I have no choice but to return to the discussion of the so-called foreign influence. Here, too, the Ministry of Justice makes some arguments in favour of the presence of such influence. However, the employees of this department do not bother themselves at all and cite the same publications that I mentioned above as proof of influence on me. True, now they refer to the fact that all these media outlets are recognised as “foreign agents,” and the journalists who prepared these publications are also included in this same “foreign agents” registry.

“So, what is there to be done?” I will object to myself. What can be done if in today’s Russia, with few exceptions, almost all honest independent media are recognised as “foreign agents”? And more and more honest and independent journalists are being added to this registry?

The Ministry of Justice cites my interaction with friends, colleagues, and human rights activists, who are just as absurdly included in this absurd “foreign agents” registry as I am, as proof of foreign influence. Well, what do we have then? Okay, the chairman of the Ministry of Justice said that if I sit down for tea with my friend Svetlana Gannushkina in Moscow (mind you, in Moscow, not in Paris or London), it will not be considered foreign influence. Well, fine, I sat down for coffee or a glass of wine with Russian human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina—and discussed work issues with her. Is this foreign influence? Well, yes, according to this law, it is foreign influence; such is this anti-legal law. So, do I have nothing to object to?

Then, Your Honour, I will again remind you where I am—behind prison walls, bars, and barbed wire. Am I not shielded from this pernicious foreign influence even now, here? Doubting this is somehow insulting to the Federal Penitentiary Service, in whose hands I am now. Is not the very fact of my being where I am now a reason to exclude me from the register of foreign agents, at least for as long as I am here? When I get out, you can put me back in.

It seems to me that if the law enforcement practice of the anti-legal, anti-constitutional federal law “On the Control over the Activities of Persons under Foreign Influence” corresponded to at least elementary logic, that is how it would be.

Once a person is behind bars or barbed wire—remove them from this registry. Once you are released—back on the registry you go. Moreover, it is obvious that such a practice should be extended to a wider range of people. Perhaps I would suggest applying it to the entire population of Russia. After all, Russians, one way or another, often in groups of more than three, mention this very public authority, in Russian, more often in obscene Russian. There you have it, Your Honour, political activity.

And as for foreign influence—it is everywhere. Listen, the absolute majority of Russians buy foreign-made jeans, carry foreign-made phones, and purchase foreign-made cars. This is not just having coffee or tea with a “foreign agent”! This, you know, is really serious foreign influence. That is why, it seems to me, this practice—including everyone in this registry (with the exception of those behind bars, because behind bars we are shielded from foreign influence)—would be logical and correct, if we proceed from this very anti-legal law.

Your Honour, I would suggest starting this practice today. Here, based on the results of this hearing, you should exclude me from this registry, since I am here. And maybe start including everyone else in it, one by one?

In conclusion, I will say in all seriousness that I fully agree with all the arguments presented in the administrative appeal prepared by my representative. If we proceed from the norms of law or at least the rules of elementary formal logic, I should be excluded from the registry of foreign people. However, from the point of view of law, the very existence of this registry should certainly be terminated. In my opinion, this should be obvious to anyone who understands anything about law, even a little bit.

Editor: Dmitry Tkachev

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