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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Harsh sentence for Putin critic highlights Kremlin’s repression

By Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko

A Moscow court earlier this week sentenced an outspoken critic of the Kremlin to 25 years in prison, an unusually harsh punishment that underscores Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasing determination to equate dissent with treason.

The sentence given to Vladimir Kara-Murza, an opposition activist and journalist who had urged the American government to impose sanctions on Russian officials, is longer than what is often given for murder in Russia, and greater than the time being served by other imprisoned Putin critics, like Alexei Navalny.

It represents the latest chilling example of the Kremlin’s wartime repression 14 months after the invasion of Ukraine, and comes less than three weeks after the arrest on espionage charges of Evan Gershkovich, an American correspondent for The Wall Street Journal based in Russia.

“We live in 2023, in the 21st century,” Kara-Murza’s mother, Yelena Gordon, told reporters outside the courthouse after the sentencing. “What is this? What is happening?”

Kara-Murza, 41, who writes a column for The Washington Post’s opinion section, was arrested in Moscow a year ago after condemning the war in Ukraine and charged with spreading “fake” information about the Russian military. In October, Russian prosecutors added a charge of treason, alleging that he had betrayed his country by criticizing Putin’s rule in public appearances in the United States and Europe, according to Kara-Murza’s lawyer.

The 25-year sentence handed down Monday combined the penalties in those two cases, as well as another sentence added last summer for participation in an “undesirable organization.”

It was a reminder that whatever its struggles to assert control on the battlefields of Ukraine, the Kremlin is firmly in charge at home, and prepared to brand any domestic critics as enemies of the state.

“Traitors and betrayers,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement about Kara-Murza on Monday, “will get what they deserve.”

Kara-Murza had long drawn the Kremlin’s ire, and survived what he characterized several years ago as two state-sponsored attempts to poison him.

Both inside Russia and in the West, Kara-Murza, who has Russian and British citizenship, spoke out against Putin and his invasion of Ukraine; last year, hours before his detention, he called Russia’s rulers “a regime of murderers” in an interview with CNN.

In London, the British government said it had summoned the Russian ambassador to protest Kara-Murza’s conviction as “contrary to Russia’s international obligations on human rights, including the right to a fair trial.” The State Department called Kara-Murza “yet another target of the Russian government’s escalating campaign of repression,” while the United Nations human rights office declared his sentence “a blow to the rule of law.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the international criticism as “an attempt to exert pressure on the Russian judicial system” that was “doomed to failure.” Referring to “traitors” like Kara-Murza who “are applauded in the West,” the ministry said, “Their foreign handlers will not help them avoid a just punishment.”

Putin did not comment publicly on Kara-Murza’s sentencing, but he has repeatedly exhorted Russia’s law enforcement and security agencies to escalate their hunt for opponents of his leadership, whom the Kremlin increasingly defines as agents trying to topple Putin on America’s behalf.

“I’m asking you to react harshly to attempts to destabilize the social and political situation in the country,” Putin said in a speech to Russian prosecutors last month.

The activity that appeared to bring Kara-Murza directly into the Kremlin’s crosshairs was his campaign in Washington more than a decade ago for the Magnitsky Act, which punished officials deemed responsible for the death of a tax lawyer in a Russian jail.

One of the Russians who fell under those sanctions after Congress passed the measure in 2012 was Sergei Podoprigorov — the same judge who delivered Monday’s sentence against Kara-Murza in Moscow City Court.

Kara-Murza’s attorney, Vadim Prokhorov, said that the clear “conflict of interest” on display with Podoprigorov presiding over Kara-Murza’s case made it plain that the entire proceeding was a sham.

“Everybody knows that Vladimir himself is one of the main initiators and promoters of the Magnitsky Act,” Prokhorov said at a panel discussion hosted by The Washington Post on Monday, referring to Kara-Murza. “This case had nothing to do with justice. It is just political revenge against Vladimir.”

Fred Ryan, the publisher of the Post, said that both Kara-Murza and the Journal’s Gershkovich were “real-time examples of the risks that journalists face and the need for all of us to use our voices to call for our elected leaders to take every possible step to secure their release.”

Kara-Murza, jailed last April, continued writing his Washington Post column from prison, and has sought to rally Western support for Russian dissidents. In a January piece, for instance, he criticized Western governments for not having acted more aggressively in the early years of Putin’s rule to promote media freedom in Russia.

Supporting independent Russian media now operating from exile, he went on, is among “the most important steps the free world could take to further undermine the Kremlin’s hateful messaging.”

In his final address to the court last week, Kara-Murza likened the current climate in Russia to the Stalin years.

“The day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate,” he said. “When black will be called black, and white will be called white; when at the official level, it will be recognized that two times two is still four; when a war will be called a war, and a usurper a usurper.”

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