Putin Extends Crackdown: Journalists and Dissidents Risk Longer Sentences

From a Wall Street Journal story by Matthew Luxmoore headlined “Russia Turns to Treason Laws as Putin Extends Crackdown”:

Russia is increasingly using treason and espionage laws to smother criticism of the war against Ukraine after President Vladimir Putin’s government widened the scope of the legislation and expanded his crackdown on opponents.

Sentences are often longer than they were before last year’s invasion, Russian lawyers and human-rights defenders say, and prosecutors often add more severe charges including terrorism and extremism to acts of dissent that were previously punished with petty fines or suspended sentences.

Journalist and government critic Vladimir Kara-Murza was this week convicted of treason in addition to disseminating allegedly false information about the Russian military and being part of a banned organization. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. In his final statement to the court, he said he had been imprisoned not for a crime, but for his opposition to Mr. Putin and the war in Ukraine.

Cases of high treason and espionage have seen a particularly sharp rise.

OVD-Info, a Moscow-based rights group, last year recorded the filing of more than 20 criminal cases for high treason. Its unpublished figures for 2023 show 10 espionage and treason cases launched in March alone, including the detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich during a reporting trip last month on an espionage allegation. The Journal and the U.S. government vehemently deny that Mr. Gershkovich is a spy. Mr. Gershkovich was accredited to work as a journalist by the Russian government at the time of his detention.

“There are more cases, and there will be more convictions, and the sentences will be longer,” said Daria Korolenko, a lawyer at OVD-Info. The group’s analysis shows that the number of people sentenced to prison on charges related to the war has risen almost every successive month since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The exact number couldn’t be determined because so many trials are secret.

Among the treason cases launched in March are several against Russians accused of trying to leave the country to fight on Ukraine’s side, and one against a man allegedly caught photographing a railway track that prosecutors said is of interest to Ukrainian military planners. A court in Russian-occupied Crimea last month sentenced to six years a man who investigators said tried to cross the Black Sea to Ukraine in a swimsuit and fins while carrying an underwater torch.

The rise comes at a time when expanded definitions of the law allow Russian prosecutors to justify espionage and treason charges, lawyers and rights advocates say. Russian lawmakers this week introduced a draft bill that would make high treason punishable by up to life in prison and would punish cooperation with international organizations or the financing of actions deemed to undermine Russian interests.

Many cases come to light long after trial. In 2017, Mr. Putin gave amnesty to a woman who had been sentenced to treason for sending text messages from Sochi in 2008 to relatives in nearby Georgia about Russian tanks being transported through the area. Russia that year waged a brief war with Georgia over the status of two breakaway territories, but the woman wasn’t arrested until 2015. News of her sentencing became public only after the verdict in 2016.

Ivan Pavlov, a Russian lawyer who specializes in treason cases, estimated that the true figure for 2022 could be as high as 40 or 50 treason cases against Russian citizens. Team 29, a legal advocacy group he ran until it was forced to disband under political pressure in 2021, estimated in a 2018 report that 100 people had been convicted on treason charges over the preceding 20 years.

“This is easy to do for a government that treats laws as a bludgeon,” said Grigory Pasko, a Russian journalist who was sentenced to four years for treason in 2001 for what investigators said was an attempt to hand classified documents to contacts in Japan. “They need obedience, subservience, and so the laws are repressive and the sentences are getting longer.”

The Kremlin didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on criticism that Russia’s legal system is being used to stifle dissent.

Mr. Pasko, who denied the charges against him, said he was convicted of simply doing his job as a reporter. He was arrested in 1997, when Russia’s treason law was a Soviet relic and carried a maximum sentence of execution by firing squad, but his trial didn’t take place until 2001, by which time the country had scrapped the death penalty.

In 2012, when Mr. Putin returned to the presidency after four years as prime minister in the face of massive antigovernment protests, Russia broadened its treason law as part of a package of legislation that drastically curtailed freedom of assembly and space for dissent.

The new law criminalized the transfer to a “foreign government or international organization” of any information that could be deemed a Russian state secret or in any way harmful to Russia’s security, a definition that could include journalistic investigations that concern manufacturing military hardware or any other sensitive aspect of Russian state power.

Russia’s FSB intelligence service justified the 2012 amendments by saying that the secret services of other countries had begun “masquerading behind legal activities.” Lawmaker Andrei Klishas told government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta at the time that the changes were aimed at “additionally defending citizens’ rights.”

But treason cases didn’t rise dramatically until after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last year. In July, Russia again expanded the definition of its law on espionage, which, unlike treason, applies to foreign citizens. The new amendment broadened the law to include the transfer of information relating to the Russian military and its armed forces to an adversary.

“It can be any kind of information, even a weather report,” said Mr. Pavlov, who has left Russia. “It’s enough to prove that it has been handed over.”

Most espionage and treason cases involve what prosecutors describe as state secrets. Experts hired by the prosecution can be tasked with interpreting any information as a state secret, Russian lawyers and legal experts said, and denying further information on the grounds that it is too sensitive to disclose to the public. The trials are held behind closed doors, and prosecutors often decline to disclose details about the materials, citing the need to safeguard state secrets.

American Paul Whelan was sentenced to 16 years in a Russian penal colony in 2020 after a secret trial on espionage charges. The U.S. considers Mr. Whelan to be wrongfully detained and his espionage conviction to be trumped up. Mr. Whelan, a 53-year-old corporate security executive and former U.S. Marine from Novi, Mich., is now serving out his sentence in a maximum-security facility. He has been held since late 2018.

Many of the recent treason cases involved Russian academics accused of passing information to contacts abroad, a practice that has come under deeper scrutiny from law enforcement since the war in Ukraine prompted an influx of Western arms to aid Kyiv’s defense. In July 2022, the head of a quantum optics laboratory in Siberia was taken by law enforcement from a hospital where he was undergoing cancer treatment and placed in a Moscow prison on treason charges. He died several days later.

Two other scientists working in the same city, Novosibirsk, were arrested on treason charges in an unrelated case over the following two months.

Despite the rise in treason cases, Mr. Pavlov, the lawyer, said Russia doesn’t want the numbers to spiral out of control as they did during the era of Joseph Stalin. This could draw attention to the prevalence of alleged traitors in Russian society and could undermine the notion of widespread support that underpins Mr. Putin’s narrative about the war, Mr. Pavlov said.

There is nonetheless a chilling effect.

When journalist Ivan Safronov was arrested in July 2020 on treason charges relating to his work at Moscow newspaper Kommersant, fellow reporters and other supporters took to Moscow’s streets day after day to demand his release. He denied the allegation and said he was being prosecuted for his journalism.

Last spring, Mr. Safronov was sentenced to 22 years in prison. There were no street protests denouncing the conviction.

Mr. Pavlov, who defended Mr. Safronov, Mr. Pasko and many other defendants in Russia’s most high-profile treason cases, said that a steady drumbeat of prosecutions would likely continue as local law enforcers use the new environment to advance their own careers, and as a way for the Kremlin to rally people around the flag.

“The state needs enemies of the state,” Mr. Pavlov said. “And high treason is a great legal definition for them.”

Matthew Luxmoore is a Wall Street Journal reporter covering Russia, Ukraine and the former Soviet Union with a particular focus on Russia’s defense, national security and the role of its military on the world stage. He was previously Moscow Correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and was the 2018 winner of New York University’s Reporting Award and a recipient in 2015 of the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award. He grew up in Poland and holds a master’s degree from the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow.

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