Putin critic jailed for 25 years in treason case

Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza, accused of treason and of discrediting the Russian army, stands behind a glass wall of an enclosure for defendants during a court hearing in Moscow, Russia, April 17, 2023. Moscow City Court/Handout via REUTERS

• Putin critic, politician Kara-Murza, was accused of treason

• Denied wrongdoing, said he stood by his actions

• Spoke out strongly against Ukraine war and Putin

• Lobbied the West to impose sanctions on Russia

• London and Washington demand his release

Outspoken Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza was jailed for 25 years by a Moscow court on Monday, April 17, 2023, the harshest sentence of its kind since Russia invaded Ukraine, after being found guilty of treason and other offences he denied committing.

Kara-Murza, 41, a father of three and an opposition politician who holds Russian and British passports, spent years speaking out against President Vladimir Putin and lobbied Western governments to impose sanctions on Russia and individual Russians for purported human rights violations.

State prosecutors, who had requested a 25-year term, had accused him of treason, among other offences, and of discrediting the Russian military after spreading “knowingly false information” about its conduct in what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

In a CNN interview broadcast hours before his arrest, Kara-Murza, whose family home is in Washington, alleged that Russia was run by a “regime of murderers”. He had also used speeches in the United States and Europe to accuse Russia of bombing civilians in Ukraine, a charge Moscow has rejected.

After hearing he’d been ordered to spend the next 25 years in a maximum-security penal colony, Kara-Murza, who had calmly listened to proceedings inside a glass courtroom cage, said “Russia will be free”, a well-known opposition slogan.

He also smiled and – according to one of his lawyers, Maria Eismont – said he regarded the harsh sentence as recognition of his effective work as an opposition politician, Reuters said.

“When he heard he’d got 25 years he said: ‘My self-esteem has gone up, I understand that I did everything right. It’s the highest score I could have got for what I did, for what I believed in as a citizen and a patriot,'” she said.

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In his final speech to the court last week, Kara-Murza compared his trial, which was held behind closed doors, to Josef Stalin’s show trials in the 1930s. He declined to ask the court to acquit him, saying he was proud of everything he had said.

Eismont said Kara-Murza’s team would appeal Monday’s verdict, which she said had been marred by legal violations.

The Kremlin, when asked about the verdict, said it did not comment on court decisions.

In London, Britain – which in 2020 imposed sanctions on the judge presiding over the case for alleged human rights violations, said it had summoned the Russian ambassador to protest over what it said was a “politically-motivated” conviction.

Outside the court in Moscow, British Ambassador Deborah Bronnert told reporters that Kara-Murza had been punished for bravely speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine and demanded he be immediately released.

U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy, speaking alongside her, said Kara-Murza’s conviction was an attempt to silence dissent.

“Criminalisation of criticism of government action is a sign of weakness, not strength,” said Tracy.

Shortly after sending tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February last year, Russia introduced sweeping wartime censorship laws which have been used to silence dissenting voices.

“Discrediting” the army can currently be punished by up to five years in prison, while spreading deliberately false information about it can attract a 15-year jail sentence.

Casting the conflict in Ukraine as an existential struggle with the West, Russian pro-government politicians say unity across society is vital. They have described Russian citizens who question Moscow’s actions in Ukraine as part of a pro-Western fifth column trying to undermine the military campaign.

Twice, in 2015 and 2017, Kara-Murza fell suddenly ill in what he said were poisonings by the Russian security services, on both occasions falling into a coma before eventually recovering.

Russian authorities denied involvement in those incidents. Kara-Murza’s lawyers say that as a result, he suffers from a serious nerve disorder called polyneuropathy.

Eismont, his lawyer, said his legal team was concerned about his health after an examination by a civilian hospital at the end of March found his condition was worsening.

Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the R.Politik analysis firm, said Kara-Murza’s lobbying for sanctions on Russia had long irritated the Kremlin and that his conviction was a warning.

“This is verdict aimed at sending a signal and probably not the last of its kind,” she wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

“In future, the security services can be much less choosy and seize anyone if they are on Russian territory and a critic of the Putin regime. This is a warning to all anti-Putin activists – don’t come back or we’ll put you in jail, de facto for life.”