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Human rights defender acquitted

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Moscow, June 14, 2011 - The acquittal of Oleg Orlov, a leading human rights advocate, on criminal slander charges on June 14, 2011, is a positive sign for justice and freedom of expression in Russia, Human Rights Watch said today.

The slander case stemmed from Orlov's statement suggesting that Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, was responsible for the murder of the human rights advocate Natalia Estemirova in July 2009. Orlov is the head of Memorial Human Rights Center, one of the foremost Russian human rights organizations, and Estemirova was a leading researcher for the group.

"We are thrilled that Orlov was acquitted," said Tanya Lokshina, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "This gives some hope for justice in Russia."

Orlov was indicted in June 2010 on charges of criminal slander for his statement about Kadyrov. On the day of Estemirova's murder, Orlov had commented that Kadyrov bore "responsibility" for the killing. In response, Kadyrov filed and won a civil suit for damages to his "honor and dignity." After a court imposed fines of 20,000 and 50,000 rubles (approximately US$690 and $1,720) respectively against Orlov and the Memorial Human Rights Center, Kadyrov filed a criminal complaint for slander against Orlov.

Moscow's Khamonivski District Court handed down the ruling after a trial that lasted nine months. Lokshina was among the witnesses for the defense.

Estemirova was abducted outside her home in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, and was found shot dead in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia later the same day. The circumstances of Estemirova's murder, along with a pattern of threats against her, Memorial, and investigative journalists and human rights defenders in Chechnya, as well as the nature of her investigations into official abuses, all point to possible official involvement in or acquiescence to her murder.

Nearly two years later, no one has been brought to justice for Estemirova's murder.

"The case against Orlov was a distraction from the urgent and real need for justice for Estemirova's murder," Lokshina said.

Under Russia's criminal libel statutes, Orlov faced a potential sentence of up to three years in prison. On June 7, President Dmitri Medvedev introduced amendments to Russia's criminal code that would decriminalize libel, making it instead an administrative offense. The amendments are pending in the Duma.

"Libel should never be a criminal offense," Lokshina said. "Decriminalizing libel would be a meaningful advance for protecting free speech. Maybe soon no other Russian human rights defender or journalist will have to fight the tough legal battle that Orlov just won just to express their opinions."

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