‘Russia will be free’: Defiant Kremlin critic jailed for 25 years after denouncing Ukraine invasion

UK among those to call for the immediate release of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a dual Russian-British citizen

Chris Stevenson
Monday 17 April 2023 17:22 BST
Vladimir Kara-Murza: Putin critic sentenced to prison

Opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza has been sentenced to 25 years in prison by a Russian court over charges linked to his criticism of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, sparking outrage from the UK – which has called for his immediate release – and other Western leaders.

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

It is one of the longest sentences handed to a political opponent of Mr Putin, and is one of a number of recent high-profile cases as the Kremlin seeks to crack down on dissent. The judgment, handed down in a behind-closed-doors trial, is the maximum possible for a person without previous convictions under Russian law.

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After his sentencing, Mr Kara-Murza said “Russia will be free”, a slogan used by the political opposition to Mr Putin. 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.

“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.

Born in Moscow, Mr Kara-Murza moved to Britain with his mother when he was 15 and studied history at Cambridge University. The foreign secretary, James Cleverly, said of the sentence: “Russia’s lack of commitment to protecting fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, is alarming.” He added that Britain would continue to call for his immediate release. The UK government has also summoned the Russian ambassador to make clear its condemnation of what it described as the “politically motivated” conviction and sentencing. The government had previously, in 2020, imposed sanctions on the judge presiding over the case for alleged human rights violations.

Outside the court in Moscow, the British ambassador to Russia, Deborah Bronnert, said that Mr Kara-Murza had been punished for bravely speaking out against Russia’s war in Ukraine and demanded he be immediately released. The US ambassador, Lynne Tracy, speaking alongside Ms Bronnert, said Mr Kara-Murza’s conviction was an attempt to silence dissent. “Criminalisation of criticism of government action is a sign of weakness, not strength,” she said.

The charges against Mr Kara-Murza stem from his March 2022 speech to the Arizona House of Representatives in which he denounced Russia’s military action in Ukraine. Investigators added the treason charges while he was in custody. In a CNN interview broadcast hours before he was arrested, Mr Kara-Murza had alleged that Russia was being run by a “regime of murderers”. At the time of his arrest, Mr Kara-Murza was among the few prominent critics of the Kremlin based in Russia. He had used a number of speeches in the United States and across Europe to accuse Moscow of bombing civilian targets in Ukraine.

State prosecutors, who had requested the court jail him for 25 years, had accused him of treason and of discrediting the Russian military after he criticised what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

The US, France and Norway were among the other nations to hit out at the verdict. The US State Department hailed Mr Kara-Murza along with jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and “many others who serve their country and their fellow citizens at great personal cost by boldly standing up for human rights and fundamental freedoms”. It renewed its call for the release of Mr Kara-Murza and more than 400 other political prisoners in Russia.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said of the verdict: “[This] 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.” The UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Turk, also called on Moscow to free Mr Kara-Murza. “No one should be deprived of their liberty for exercising their human rights, and I call on the Russian authorities to release him without delay,” he said, adding that the sentence is “another blow to the rule of law and civic space in the Russian Federation”.

Mr Kara-Murza’s wife, Evgenia, who lives in Washington with the couple’s three children – aged 1, 11 and 14 – has called the case political vengence, saying that her husband has not been allowed to call his children. “I understand that this sentence is the high recognition of the effectiveness of Vladimir’s work,” she said in the wake of the sentencing. “He has proven time and again that he would not back down, that he would not abandon his fight, that he would not betray his country and betray his ideals, that he would keep on fighting.”

Mr Kara-Murza had previously worked to get American political approval for the Magnitsky Act of 2012, which allows the US to impose sanctions on Russian officials it believes are involved in human rights abuses.

In his final speech to the court last week, Mr Kara-Murza had compared his own trial to Josef Stalin's show trials in the 1930s and had declined to ask the court to acquit him, saying he stood by and was proud of everything he had said.

"Criminals are supposed to repent of what they have done. I, on the other hand, am in prison for my political views. I also know that the day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate,” he said. He has described the case against him as being based on “political vengeance”.

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 and independent media across the country. “Discrediting” the army can currently be punished by up to five years in prison, while spreading deliberately false information about it can bring a sentence of 15 years in jail. The Kremlin has denied targeting civilians during its invasion, but has been repeatedly accused of doing so by Ukraine and its Western allies.

Mr Kara-Murza was a close associate of Boris Nemtsov, a leading figure of the political opposition who was assassinated near the Kremlin in 2015, and continued to speak out against Mr Putin despite the mounting risks.

Twice, in 2015 and 2017, Mr Kara-Murza faced apparent attempted poisonings. He fell suddenly ill, falling into a coma on both occasions before eventually recovering. He alleged these were perpetrated by the Russian security services (Russian authorities denied involvement). Mr Kara-Murza’s lawyers say that as a result of the incidents, he suffers from a nerve disorder called polyneuropathy, which Russian authorities have refused to acknowledge.

Another prominent opposition figure, Ilya Yashin, was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison on charges of discrediting the military late last year.

Last month, a Russian court convicted a father over social media posts critical of the war and sentenced him to two years in prison. His 13-year-old daughter, who drew an anti-war sketch at school, was sent to an orphanage. Days later, Russia’s security service arrested Evan Gershkovich, an American reporter for The Wall Street Journal, on espionage charges.

It is the first time since 1986 that an American reporter has been held for alleged espionage in Russia. His newspaper has rejected the charge, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. The White House has called it “ridiculous”, and President Joe Biden has said Mr Gershkovich’s detention is “totally illegal”.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

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