Russia Sentences Kara-Murza, Putin Critic and Washington Post Contributor, to 25 Years in Prison

From a Washington Post story by Robyn Dixon headlined “Russia sentences Kara-Murza, Putin critic and Post contributor, to 25 years”:

RIGA, Latvia — A Russian court sentenced Vladimir Kara-Murza, a longtime opposition politician and Washington Post Opinions contributor, to 25 years in prison on Monday on charges of treason for criticizing Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Amid a draconian crackdown on dissent, it was the harshest penalty yet for an opponent of the war, in a case that Kara-Murza condemned as “unfounded, illegal and politically motivated.”

The closed trial further highlighted Russia’s isolationist path, as President Vladimir Putin has disregarded Western criticisms of Russia’s human rights abuses and moved to brutally destroy any remnants of his country’s pro-democracy opposition.

The sentence was strongly condemned by Western governments, international human rights organizations and Russian activists and rights groups.

The U.S. State Department has described the charges as false and has sanctioned Russian officials involved in the case for “gross violation of human rights.”

Kara-Murza, who has been an outspoken critic of Putin, defiantly denounced the charges against him at a hearing last week in which he was allowed to make a final statement in the case.

“I’m in jail for my political views. For speaking out against the war in Ukraine. For many years of struggle against Putin’s dictatorship,” he said. “Not only do I not repent of any of this, I am proud of it.” He declined to request an acquittal.

In Russia’s highly politicized legal system, the court’s verdict was never in doubt. The prosecutor had sought the maximum term of 25 years for Kara-Murza.

One of Kara-Murza’s lawyers, Maria Eismont, said he expressed pride after the verdict in his work as an opposition politician. “My self-esteem has even risen. I realized that I have done everything right as a citizen and as a politician,” Eismont quoted him as saying.

Kara-Murza’s wife, Yevgenia Kara-Murza, posted a message to her husband on Twitter saying that being handed a quarter-century in prison was the highest possible mark he could be given “for your courage, consistency and honesty in your many years of work.” She added: “I am infinitely proud of you, dear, and I am always there.” Yevgenia Kara-Murza and their three children live in the United States.

Asked by The Washington Post whether the 25-year treason sentence for making speeches criticizing the war was fair and reasonable, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “You know very well we never comment on court decisions, and we will not do so this time, either.”

He was arrested last April on charges of spreading false information in a speech he made in the United States to Arizona lawmakers condemning Russian military actions in Ukraine.

In the summer, he was charged with cooperating with a nongovernmental organization, the Free Russia Foundation, designated as undesirable by Kremlin authorities. In October, authorities added treason charges related to antiwar speeches Kara-Murza made abroad.

Russian media reported that journalists, supporters and diplomats who tried to attend the announcement of the verdict on Monday were denied access to the courtroom and sent to a room on a separate floor where the decision was broadcast, a decision that left Kara-Murza isolated, cut off from many who came to show their support.

Kara-Murza’s mother, Elena Gordon, told reporters at the court that she has been allowed to visit him only once since his arrest more than a year ago. She condemned the court’s verdict.

“I felt like I fell asleep there and woke up in a Kafka novel or an Ionesco play. Who are all these people? The world is upside down. We are in the 23rd year of the 21st century. What’s going on?” she said. Kara-Murza’s father, also named Vladimir, was a journalist and television host. He died in 2009.

International condemnation of the verdict was widespread.

U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Lynne Tracy called for Kara-Murza’s immediate release, describing the sentence as “another terrible sign of the repression that has taken hold in Russia.” She said speaking truth to power was the act of a patriot.

“The right to have political opinions, or to disagree with the decisions of one’s own government, are fundamental freedoms enshrined in both the Russian constitution and international treaties to which Russia is a party,” Tracy said. “This ruling is an attempt to silence dissent in this country and to make an example of those with the courage to offer an alternative to the policies of the Russian government.”

Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics banned 10 Russian officials “involved in this bogus case” from entering the country and called on the European Union to impose sanctions on them as well. “I condemn the unfair and harsh sentence against prominent Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza handed down today by a Russian court,” Rinkevics said.

The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said the trial was “politically motivated” and did not meet international standards for a fair trial. “Today’s outrageously harsh court decision clearly demonstrates yet again the political misuse of judiciary in order to pressure activists, human rights defenders and any voices opposing Russia’s illegitimate war of aggression against Ukraine,” Borrell said.

The British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office summoned Russia’s ambassador to Britain to protest the verdict. Britain’s ambassador to Russia, Deborah Bronnert, condemned the sentence in comments outside the court and said Kara-Murza is being punished for his brave opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee described the sentence as “absurd” and called for European sanctions on all Russian officials involved in the case.

The case is the latest in a series of increasingly harsh sentences for Russian opposition politicians and activists. Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition figure, has been suffering acute stomach pains in prison, and his lawyers and associates have warned that Russian authorities may be slowly poisoning him.

Navalny and Kara-Murza each survived poisoning attacks. The State Department has accused Russian officials of attempting to assassinate Navalny in 2020 using a banned chemical weapon. Investigative group Bellingcat reported in 2021 that Kara-Murza was tailed by the same special unit of Federal Security Service, or FSB, that followed Navalny.

Kara-Murza, who was the victim of poisoning attacks in Russia in 2015 and 2017, has lost 48 pounds since he was arrested near his home last April and imprisoned in pretrial detention. His health has declined sharply, according to his lawyers, raising fears about whether he would survive a lengthy jail term.

Navalny, speaking Monday at a hearing on a lawsuit against Russia’s prison authorities, expressed deep outrage over Kara-Murza’s sentence, calling it “revenge for the fact that he did not die, having survived two poisonings that were committed — obviously, and this has already been proven — by members of the Russian Federal Security Service.”

“I consider this sentence as illegal, unconscionable and simply fascist,” Navalny said.

Ivan Pavlov, a top Russian human rights lawyer known for defending Russians in cases of treason and espionage, said Kara-Murza’s sentence for expressing his views about the war exceeds the term normally given to murderers. Pavlov fled Russia in 2021 after facing a criminal investigation himself.

“In fact, all Vladimir Kara-Murza did was exercise his constitutional right to express his opinions freely,” Pavlov said. “This right should not be subject to prosecution. But it turns out that, with this verdict, the court simply overturned Article 29 of the Constitution.” He referred to the section in Russia’s constitution guaranteeing the right to free speech and thought.

Kara-Murza is suffering from spreading numbness in his feet and his left hand, a condition prison doctors have diagnosed as polyneuropathy, caused by damage to peripheral nerves, according to his lawyers.

Amid Russian military failures in Ukraine, the Kremlin has blamed the West for the war on Ukraine, accusing it of trying to destroy Russia, plunging relations with the United States into their worst crisis since the Cold War.

The recent arrest of American journalist Evan Gershkovich, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, during a reporting trip in Russia and his indictment on espionage charges last month marked a new low in relations between Washington and Russia. Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal and the State Department rejected the espionage charges.

During his final statement to the court a week ago, Kara-Murza said that the trial had turned the clock back to the 1930s, the height of Stalinist political repressions.

Kara-Murza has long been a supporter of the Magnitsky Act, which allows for sanctions against Russian officials responsible for human rights abuses. The law, named after Russian tax auditor and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky who died in prison in 2009 after exposing massive fraud by Russian officials, has been adopted by the United States, Britain and several other Western nations.

The judge in Kara-Murza’s case, Sergei Podoprigorov, is under sanctions by the United States and Britain for his role in the jailing of Magnitsky.

Even as he faced treason charges, Kara-Murza continued to speak out against the war, and wrote opinion columns for The Post critical of the path taken by the Putin regime.

“My case marks the first moment in post-Soviet Russia when public criticism of the authorities is officially clarified as ‘treason,’” he wrote in a column in October. “Adding significant insult to a very real injury was the accusation of ‘betraying’ the country I love — coming from the people who really are destroying its future, its reputation and its standing in the world.”

In earlier comments on social media, Kara-Murza said he did not understand how criticizing the government could qualify as treason.

“It is incomprehensible to me how obvious and confirmed facts about the crimes committed during the aggression of Putin’s regime against Ukraine can be presented as ‘deliberately false information’ and the obvious lie — on the contrary, as the only truth.”

Yet he also said that he was convinced that Putin’s regime would fall because of the war, and expressed optimism that, in time, Russia would have a bright, democratic future.

“I also know that the day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate,” he said in his final statement, speaking of a time in the future “when those who kindled and unleashed this war, and not those who tried to stop it, are recognized as criminals.”

He added: “This day will come as inevitably as spring comes to replace even the most frosty winter. And then our society will open its eyes and be horrified by what terrible crimes were committed on its behalf.”

Robyn Dixon is a foreign correspondent on her third stint in Russia, after almost a decade reporting there beginning in the early 1990s. In November 2019 she joined The Washington Post as Moscow bureau chief.

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