MOSCOW – A Russian court on Monday convicted top opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. of treason for publicly denouncing Moscow’s war in Ukraine and sentenced him to 25 years in prison as part of the Kremlin’s relentless crackdown on critics of the invasion.
The political activist and journalist, who twice survived poisonings he blamed on Russian authorities, has rejected the charges against him as punishment for standing up to President Vladimir Putin and likened the proceedings to the show trials under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Human rights organizations and Western governments denounced the verdict and demanded his release. Amnesty International declared the 41-year-old to be a prisoner of conscience.
Kara-Murza reacted calmly as the judge read the verdict and sentence in a quick monotone. His lawyer, Maria Eismont, later quoted him as telling her: “My self-esteem has risen: I realized that I have done everything right. Twenty-five years is the highest appraisal that I could get for doing what I did and what I believed in, as a citizen, a patriot and a politician.”
Kara-Murza’s wife, Evgenia, who lives in the U.S. with their three children, tweeted after the verdict: “A quarter of a century is an ‘A+’ for your courage, consistency and honesty in your years-long work. I am infinitely proud of you, my love, and I’m always by your side.”
The charges against Kara-Murza, a dual Russian-British citizen who has been behind bars since his arrest a year ago, stem from a March 2022 speech to the Arizona House of Representatives in which he denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as other speeches abroad.
“There are millions of people in my country who fundamentally reject and fundamentally disagree with everything that the Putin regime represents and stands for, from the kleptocracy and thievery to the abuses and the repressions and the crimes against humanity that are being committed,” Kara-Murza said in his 17-minute speech to lawmakers in Arizona, which he visited at the invitation of the Phoenix Committee on Foreign Relations.
“It was an absolute honor for me to witness his courage last year when he addressed" the House, said state Rep. Marcelino Quiñonez, a Democrat and House Minority Whip. “Obviously this sentence is a travesty for justice all around the world.”
Days after the invasion, Russia adopted a law criminalizing spreading “false information” about its military. Authorities have used the law to stifle criticism of what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation."
Kara-Murza was initially only charged with spreading “false information” about the military, but later the authorities added charges of working with an “undesirable” organization — also a criminal offense — and treason.
The sweeping campaign of repression is unprecedented since the Soviet era, effectively criminalizing independent reporting on the conflict and any public criticism of the war.
Another prominent opposition figure, Ilya Yashin, was sentenced to 8½ years in prison last year on charges of spreading false information about the military.
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 antiwar 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.
A recent report by the Russian Supreme Court said that in 2022, courts ordered citizens to pay fines for discrediting the military 4,439 times, for the equivalent of about $1.8 million in total, according to Russia's independent news site Mediazona.
In a statement at the end of his trial, Kara-Murza said he was jailed for "many years of struggle against Putin’s dictatorship,” his criticism of the war in Ukraine and his long efforts to champion Western sanctions against Russian officials involved in human rights abuses.
“I know that the day will come when the darkness engulfing our country will dissipate,” he told the court in remarks posted on his Twitter account. “This day will come as inevitably as spring comes to replace even the frostiest winter."
Kara-Murza was an associate of Russian opposition leader and fierce Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated near the Kremlin in 2015.
In 2011-12, Kara-Murza and Nemtsov lobbied for passage of the Magnitsky Act in the U.S. The law was in response to the death in prison of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had exposed a tax fraud scheme. The law has enabled Washington to impose sanctions on Russians deemed to be human rights violators.
The judge in Kara-Murza’s trial, Sergei Podoprigorov, was among those sanctioned after ordering Magnitsky’s arrest in 2008. Podoprigorov had petitioned U.S. authorities in 2018 to lift the sanctions against him, according to Kara-Murza’s lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov. During Kara-Murza's trial, Prokhorov twice asked Podoprigorov to recuse himself, to no avail, Russian media reported.
Kara-Murza had been a friend of Sen. John McCain and was a pallbearer at his 2018 funeral. McCain’s choice of the Russian dissident as a pallbearer was widely seen as a slap at then-President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican who was often criticized by the senator for what he saw as having a cozy relationship with Putin. Kara-Murza had worked with McCain on pushing anti-Putin measures through Congress.
The politician and activist survived poisonings in 2015 and 2017 that he blamed on the Kremlin. Russian officials have denied responsibility.
Amnesty International denounced Kara-Murza's sentence as “yet another chilling example of the systematic repression of civil society, which has broadened and accelerated under the Kremlin since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year."
The group declared Kara-Murza a prisoner of conscience, convicted for his political beliefs, and demanded his immediate and unconditional release.
Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most prominent human rights organizations that was named a co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize along with human rights defenders from Ukraine and Belarus, also has named Kara-Murza as a political prisoner.
Memorial's head Yan Rachinsky described the sentence as “monstrous,” adding that it reflected the authorities' fear of criticism and “marked a difference between today's Russia and civilized countries.”
British and U.S. ambassadors to Russia called for Kara-Murza’s immediate release, speaking to reporters on the steps of the Moscow courthouse. Western governments strongly condemned the conviction.
“Vladimir Kara-Murza bravely denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for what it was — a blatant violation of international law and the U.N. Charter,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement.
The Foreign Office said it summoned Russian Ambassador Andrey Kelin over the conviction. The U.K. previously sanctioned the presiding judge for human rights violations in another case and said it would consider taking further action to hold people accountable in Kara-Murza's case.
The U.S. State Department praised Kara-Murza along with jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Yashin 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 Kara-Murza and more than 400 other political prisoners in Russia.
The U.N. Human Rights Chief Volker Türk called the sentence “another blow to the rule of law and civic space in the Russian Federation."
Former Arizona state Rep. César N. Chávez, a Democrat who was vice chairman of international affairs committee to the legislature when Kara-Murza gave his speech, called the sentence “appalling and sad to those of us who live in a free society.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment.
Kara-Murza's health has deteriorated in custody, leading to the development of polyneuropathy — disease of or damage to nerves — in both his feet, according to his lawyers.
Lawyer Prokhorov told German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle on Monday that the politician was handed “in essence, a death sentence.”
Follow AP's coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine-war
Associated Press writer Anita Snow in Phoenix contributed.