(MOSCOW) — A Moscow court has sentenced one of Russia’s most high-profile Kremlin critics, Vladimir Kara-Murza, to 25 years in prison on charges of treason for criticizing the war in Ukraine — in what was widely viewed as a show trial.
The unprecedented sentence is the lengthiest ever given to an opponent of President Vladimir Putin, highlighting the crackdown unleashed by Russia’s government since the invasion of Ukraine, which has moved to stamp out any opposition at home.
Kara-Murza is a long-time pro-democracy activist whose family lives in the United States and who was a contributing opinion writer for The Washington Post. A dual British and Russian citizen, Kara-Murza was arrested in April 2022 and charged with spreading false information about the Russian military in Ukraine over statements he made accusing it of committing war crimes. He was later charged with treason over public speeches criticizing Putin and the war. He was also charged with belonging to an “undesirable organisation.”
Virtually all prominent Russian opposition figures are now either in jail or in exile amid the crackdown and the length of Kara-Murza’s sentence prompted horror among liberal Russians, drawing comparisons to Joseph Stalin-era trials.
“This sentence is comparable only with times of Stalin,” Yan Rachinsky, head of the Russian human rights organization Memorial, which was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, told the Russian news site Meduza. “It’s especially monstrous that the sentence is for words. It is, in fact, a symptom of the fact that the authorities are afraid of words, they are trying to shut the mouths of anyone who stands against them.”
Kara-Murza dismissed the charges against him. His trial was held entirely behind closed doors but his closing statement to the court was released to journalists in a letter.
“I only blame myself for one thing,” Kara-Murza said. “I failed to convince enough of my compatriots and politicians in democratic countries of the danger that the current Kremlin regime poses for Russia and for the world.”
“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.
Western governments condemned Kara-Murza’s jailing on Monday. Dozens of Western diplomats came to the court on Monday, where they were able to watch the verdict on a video screen, and some ambassadors issued statements afterward criticizing the verdict.
“We support Mr. Kara-Murza and every Russian citizen to have a voice in the direction of their country. Mr. Kara-Murza and countless other Russians believe in and hope for a Russia where fundamental freedoms will be upheld. And we will continue to share those hopes and work for that outcome,” Lynne Tracy, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, told reporters afterward.
Kara-Murza, 41, previously survived two near-fatal poisoning attempts — first in 2015 and then again in 2017. He suffered organ failure in both incidents, which saw him put in an artificial coma and left him with enduring health problems. The assassination attempts were later linked by independent researchers to the same team of poisoners from Russia’s FSB intelligence service that nearly killed the opposition leader Alexey Navalny in 2018.
Navalny, Russia’s best-known Putin critic, on Monday said he was “deeply upset” by Kara-Murza’s sentence.
“I believe this sentence is illegal, unconscionable, and simply fascistic,” Navalny wrote from prison in a message released by his team.
Navalny is currently being held in a prison camp and his team in recent days has warned he is seriously ill after prolonged stints in solitary confinement. His team this week said it feared authorities may be being slowly poisoning him again.
Following his poisonings, Kara-Murza spent much of his time in the U.S., where his wife and children live in Virginia. But he continued returning to Russia after the Ukraine war began, saying he believed it was important to oppose the Kremlin’s invasion and to campaign for a free Russia.
Kara-Murza was active in campaigning in the U.S. and Europe to bring sanctions against Russian officials accused of human rights abuses. A friend of the late Sen. John McCain, Kara-Murza played a leading role in persuading the U.S. Congress to pass the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which created a blacklist of Russian officials accused of abuses.
The judge who sentenced Kara-Murza on Monday, Sergey Podoprigorov, was already sanctioned by the U.S. government under the Magnitsky Act. The judge rejected a demand by Kara-Murza’s lawyers to recuse himself over the issue.
The British Foreign Office on Monday noted it had also already sanctioned the judge for previous involvement in human rights violations and warned it will “consider further measures” to hold to account those involved in Kara-Murza’s detention and mistreatment.
Russian authorities charged Kara-Murza in part over a speech he gave to lawmakers in Arizona in March 2022 shortly after Russia’s invasion, where he accused Putin of war crimes.
“We all see what Vladimir Putin is doing with Ukraine. Cluster bombs in residential areas, hospitals schools — all these are war crimes,” Kara-Murza said in the address. Kara-Murza’s lawyer, Maria Eismont told Meduza he viewed the sentence as proof his efforts challenging the Kremlin were right.
“‘My self-worth has even gone up. I understand that I’ve been doing everything right. 25 years is the highest mark I could have received for what I have done,'” Eismont quoted Kara-Murza as telling her after the sentencing.
Kara-Murza’s wife, Yevgenia, tweeted fter the ruling Monday: “I am infinitely proud of you, my love, and I’m always by your side.”
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