One of the many disturbing aspects of the NSA spying revelations is how much joy they have brought to the world's chronic violators of human rights and political freedoms.
On Thursday in Moscow, where former NSA contractor Edward Snowden awaits his asylum papers, a Russian court removed a major critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin's list of worries, sentencing the charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny to five years in jail on theft charges. Amid intense anger at the verdict and fears that it would raise Navalny's profile, the court agreed on Friday to release him pending appeal.
The trial and the predictable verdict, as the European Union foreign affairs chief said, "raises serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia." That's putting it mildly. Navatny is the most prominent, but just one in a long series of politically-motivated prosecutions in a country where the courts seldom make a move that displeases Putin.
Navalny was particularly worrisome to the Russian president. He had gained an enormous following by speaking out against corruption and cronyism, labeling Putin's United Russia "a party of swindlers and thieves" and using social media to help mobilize the president's critics. He had just announced he would run for mayor of Moscow. But, like other Putin opponents with any possible chance to loosen the president's complete hold on power, he will likely go to prison instead. Now that he's released, Navalny is considering whether to stay or withdraw from the race for mayor.
Meanwhile, Putin and his backers are having a field day. They claim it is Washington that leads the world in violating human rights, even as dozens of people who dared protest against Putin's rule face trial or languish in jail, in a country where a number of journalists who criticized the president have turned up dead under mysterious circumstances.
When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the wealthiest man in Russia, decided to turn his attention from business to politics, the tax authorities turned on him. He was sent to prison in Siberia, and when he became eligible for parole, the state filed another case, winning another conviction which extended his sentence.
Then there's the case of Sergei Magnitsky. The government auditor was sent to investigate the investment firm Heritage Capital, which was charged with tax evasion. When Magnitsky concluded the tax fraud was actually coming from the government side and became a whistleblower, naming a network of corrupt officials, he was accused of working for Heritage and thrown in jail, where he became ill, was denied medical treatment and died in 2009, when he was just 37. The United States responded with the Magnitsky Law, imposing sanctions on those involved in his death.
Death didn't save Magnitsky from Russia's courts, which found him guilty of tax fraud just last week.
Many others, including the performance group Pussy Riot, have seen even small scale political activism land them in jail.
For Putin, having Snowden in Russia creates many complications, but he has hardly managed to conceal his glee at having America's top critic under his protection. He has made it clear that he wants Snowden to refrain from harming U.S.-Russian relations, and as a former KGB spy himself, the Russian president would risk ridicule if he ventured too far in criticizing NSA actions.
Still, Putin derived visible satisfaction from having Snowden land in Russia's lap, armed with material to discredit the United States. Conflicted by the need to preserve a needed relationship with Washington while wanting to maximize the benefit of Snowden's presence, Putin did his best impression of a protector of human rights. Snowden and Wikileaks' Julian Assange, Putin said, consider themselves "human rights activist ... fighting for the spread information."
"Ask yourself," he said, affecting the pose of a defender of oppressed activists, "should you hand these people over so they will be put in prison?" The implied answer was of course not. How could Putin possibly help send a human rights activist to prison?!
The Kremlin's media apparatus, in what is undoubtedly an effort to give America a black eye and take away Washington's power to criticize Russia's abuses, launched a campaign to put Snowden on a pedestal with programs that tore apart the United States, while glorifying the former NSA contractor who drew the curtain on U.S. government surveillance.
After that carefully crafted media operation, America's voice in the Navalny case lost its edge. After the verdict, the U.S. ambassador wrote a tweet decrying the "apparent political motivations in this trial." But Russian democrats and human rights activists have a weaker supporter in America now.
Snowden's days in Hong Kong brought a similar reaction from China. That was particularly ironic, considering that no country on Earth has a more elaborate machine to monitor and manipulate what its citizens do online than does China, where the Communist Party also has complete control of the political system.
China Daily, the government mouthpiece, gloated "This is not the first time that U.S. government agencies' wrongdoing have aroused widespread public concern." This, from a state that, in the words of Human Rights Watch, "imposes sharp curbs on freedom of expression, association ... openly rejects judicial independence and press freedom; arbitrarily restricts and suppresses human rights defenders..."
Even if you agree with Snowden that the NSA spying is going too far, as I do, it's hard to argue with the negative impact Snowden's revelations have had on human rights activists in other countries. Today, dictators and authoritarian rulers are basking in a viscous moral relativism, feeling their abuses are somehow justified by criticism of America's spying.
There are, however, many meaningful differences between America's surveillance excesses and those of Russia, China and their ilk. The most important of all is that Russia and China's behavior is motivated by a desire to suppress internal dissent, to protect the people and the organizations in power.
Nobody believes that is Washington's motivation. The United States may have gone too far, or far adrift, in pursuit of national security, but its spying machine is not built to destroy domestic opposition to the government.
When people say, "the Americans are just as bad," they are not only clearly wrong, they are also hurting the cause of political and personal freedom around the globe.
Snowden's revelations are a legitimate subject for discussion and criticism. But advocates of Internet privacy, free expression and human rights should not allow abusive authoritarian regimes to use American actions as a cover for their egregious misdeeds.
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