Harsh Sentence for Putin Critic Highlights Kremlin’s Repression

A Moscow court on Monday sentenced an outspoken critic of the Kremlin to 25 years in prison, an unusually harsh punishment that underscores President Vladimir V. 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 Aleksei A. 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,” Mr. Kara-Murza’s mother, Yelena Gordon, told reporters outside the courthouse after the sentencing. “What is this? What is happening?”

Mr. 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 Mr. Putin’s rule in public appearances in the United States and Europe, according to Mr. Kara-Murza’s lawyer.

The 25-year sentence handed down on 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 Mr. Kara-Murza on Monday, “will get what they deserve.”

Mr. 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, Mr. Kara-Murza, who has Russian and British citizenship, spoke out against Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Kara-Murza who “are applauded in the West,” the ministry said: “Their foreign handlers will not help them avoid a just punishment.”

Mr. Putin did not comment publicly on Mr. 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 Mr. Putin on America’s behalf.

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

In the Russia justice system, verdicts are often foregone conclusions, especially for opponents of the Kremlin. It was the length of the prison term that was bracing.

Mr. Kara-Murza’s sentence far exceeds that of Mr. Navalny, the most prominent Russian opposition figure, who initially received a two-and-a-half-year prison term in 2021 and was given another nine-year sentence last year. And though it appears to be the longest handed down to a Kremlin critic in the last year, hundreds of others are also facing yearslong prison terms for speaking out against the war, human rights groups say.

Ilya Yashin, an opposition leader, was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison in December; the authorities accused him of spreading false information about atrocities committed in the Ukrainian city of Bucha by Russian troops.

For Mr. Kara-Murza, the activity that appeared to bring him directly into the Kremlin’s cross hairs 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 Mr. Kara-Murza in Moscow City Court.

Mr. Kara-Murza’s attorney, Vadim Prokhorov, said that the clear “conflict of interest” on display with Mr. Podoprigorov presiding over Mr. 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,” Mr. Prokhorov said at a panel discussion hosted by The Washington Post on Monday, referring to Mr. 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 Mr. Kara-Murza and The Journal’s Mr. 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.”

In February, Mr. Prokhorov said that Mr. Kara-Murza had been put into solitary confinement, where his health began to deteriorate rapidly. Last month, Mr. Prokhorov said that doctors had diagnosed his client with polyneuropathy, a serious nerve disorder that manifested itself in the numbness of his feet, a condition that was caused by his poisonings.

“This disease is difficult to treat even in freedom and moreover it’s absolutely difficult, maybe impossible, to treat in the conditions of the prison,” Evgenia Kara-Murza, Mr. Kara-Murza’s wife, said at Monday’s event in Washington. “It’s possible to claim that this long years imprisonment for him is quite some kind of death penalty.”

Mr. Kara-Murza’s supporters said the length of the sentence evoked the terror of the Stalin era — and of the repression faced by his own family.

Two of Mr. Kara-Murza’s great-grandfathers were executed as spies and “enemies of the people” during Stalin’s purges, according to Meduza, a Russian news website. His grandfather was arrested in 1937 and served a sentence in labor camps in Russia’s Far East. His father, Vladimir Kara-Murza Sr., was a prominent Russian liberal journalist until his death in 2019.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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.”

Michael M. Grynbaum contributed reporting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *