Breathtaking courage of tyrant Putin’s latest show trial victim
Published by The Daily Mail (18th April, 2023)
A leading pro-democracy campaigner and Kremlin critic has been sentenced to 25 years in a Russian penal colony for condemning the war in Ukraine after a show trial that has been compared with the most brutal excesses of the Stalin era.
Opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who holds dual British and Russian citizenship and has survived two poisonings by the authorities, was deemed guilty of treason after accusing Russian military forces of war crimes in a speech to US politicians last year.
The sentence is the longest yet handed out to a Russian opposition figure, and marks another sinister step in Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on dissent following his bungled invasion of Ukraine.
Human rights lawyer Mikhail Biryukov compared the spectacle to Joseph Stalin’s show trials, adding that such a long sentence for treason was similar to those handed to ‘Nazi accomplices who fought with weapons in their hands during the Second World War’.
The judge in Moscow took only minutes to rule on the case and demanded Kara-Murza should be sent to a ‘strict regime correctional colony’, despite the fact he suffers from serious health concerns that are thought to be a legacy of the assassination attempts.
The father-of-three defiantly told the court that he was proud of every word he had spoken, adding that his only regret was his failure to convince enough people at home and abroad about the dangers of Putin.
‘I know that the day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate… and when those who kindled and unleashed this war, rather than those who tried to stop it, will be recognised as criminals,’ he said.
The 41-year-old Cambridge University graduate, who had moved his family to America, returned to Russia a year ago – and, despite the intensifying crackdown on Putin’s critics, kept making attacks on a war that he called ‘illegal’ while describing the government as a ‘regime of murderers’.
He was arrested on grounds of ‘spreading “fakes” about the Russian army motivated by political hatred’ and then labelled ‘a foreign agent’ a few days later.
His bravery is remarkable. When I chatted to Kara-Murza at a conference on Putin hosted by former chess champion Garry Kasparov in New York in 2018, he told me of his determination to save his nation from despotism.
‘If we did nothing, we would be complicit in the destruction of Russia. I am doing this for my children. I want them to be able to live in a free and democratic Russia.’ He knew better than most the risks of fighting Putin, but seemed fearless. ‘They’ve tried to kill me twice in the last three years but I am not easily intimidated,’ he told me, adding with a rueful smile that the murder attempts were ‘disconcerting’.
In May 2015 – three months after his mentor and political colleague Boris Nemtsov was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin – Kara-Murza was rushed to hospital in Moscow when his heartbeat suddenly surged and he started vomiting following lunch in a restaurant.
He was in a coma for a week and suffered kidney failure, saying after he had recovered in the US that it was difficult to ‘believe this was an accident’. Tests found an excess of heavy metals in his blood, although Russian authorities refused to investigate.
Two years later, he ended up in another coma on life support after a similar incident. Doctors and toxicology tests found his symptoms consistent with poisoning.
Bellingcat, the digital investigation group, found that in both instances he had been ‘systematically tailed’ by security operatives – including one individual who had allegedly been involved in the poisoning of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, also since jailed by the Kremlin.
Afterwards, Kara-Murza moved his wife and children to Washington, telling me that he doubted he would survive a third attempt on his life. ‘I cannot stop eating and drinking,’ he said. ‘All I can do is move my family away from Russia.’
Kara-Murza’s wife Evgenia said yesterday the long prison term was ‘recognition’ of her husband’s work. ‘The sentence shows that they’re so afraid of him and they hate him so much for his consistency, for his courage, for his amazing bravery.’
But concerns over his health have grown recently after he suffered dramatic weight loss and spreading numbness in his hands and feet. Kara-Murza’s lawyer said the activist had polyneuropathy, caused by damage to the peripheral nerves on his limbs as a result of the poison attacks.
Navalny, who was attacked with the nerve agent Novichok three years ago, said in a statement yesterday that Kara-Murza was being persecuted as ‘revenge for the fact that he did not die’ after being poisoned.
He added that the trial was ‘illegal, unscrupulous and simply fascist’. Navalny has also been severely ill, with stomach pains and weight loss, after being sent to a top-security penal colony following his arrest on returning to Russia in January 2021.
‘It’s a sort of slow and methodical murder, happening in front of our eyes right now, with the whole world watching,’ said a member of his Anti-Corruption Foundation.
Kara-Murza became active in politics after meeting Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister. The pair co-wrote an appeal for Putin to quit in 2010, then become key voices in the global campaign for the imposition of ‘Magnitsky sanctions’ on officials tied to human rights abuses.
The sanctions are named after Sergei Magnitsky, who was beaten to death in a Russian jail after exposing a £185 million tax fraud – and have been imposed on the judge in Kara-Murza’s case for his role in sentencing the lawyer.
When we last met, this likeable and brave man told me that he was ‘very optimistic’ for Russia’s future, explaining how he saw flight as a form of defeat. But that was before the war, before the Kremlin terror worsened – and before his jail sentence.
The activist had predicted his fate to the court. ‘I know the verdict,’ he said. ‘I knew it a year ago when I saw people in black uniforms and black masks running after my car in the rear-view mirror. Such is the price for speaking up in Russia today.’