Iris de Graaf
Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Moerza has been sentenced to 25 years in prison. The activist received the verdict this morning behind closed doors in a court in Moscow. It is the first time since the Stalin era that such a draconian sentence has been imposed in Russia: a quarter of a century of imprisonment in a maximum security prison.
Kara-Moerza was convicted of high treason and discrediting the Russian military after criticizing what is still called a “special military operation” in Russia. He has been in prison since April last year.
Kara-Moerza was apparently unmoved by the sentence:
“Discrediting” the military is currently punishable by up to five years in prison, while deliberately spreading “fake news” about the Russian military can lead to a 15-year prison sentence. High treason, of which Kara-Moerza is accused, carries a further sentence of up to decades in prison. Kara-Moerza herself denies all allegations.
In court last week, Kara-Moerza compared his case to the show trials under Stalin: “The current climate in Russia is not so much like the 1970s” – a period when the state took on Soviet dissidents – “as much as the 1970s 30, when Stalin led a series of show trials and purges of all his opponents”.
Kara-Moerza (41) is a descendant of a famous dissident family. His two great-grandfathers were executed by the authorities; his grandfather endured the Gulag camps under Stalin; his father, a journalist for Russia’s first independent TV channel, fought against the destruction of press freedom under President Putin. Vladimir Kara-Moerza himself is the father of three children and has Russian and British passports.
For years he worked as a journalist for The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Novaja Gazeta and Echo van Moscow, among others. But he is best known as a politician for his years of protest against Putin. He lobbied foreign governments and institutions to impose sanctions on Russia and individual Russians for human rights violations and corruption.
In 2003 he joined forces with the later assassinated opposition politician Boris Nemtsov and other members of the opposition. With them he set up a committee that wanted to organize “free and democratic” presidential elections in 2008. A fully-fledged political party did not materialize: they always failed to reach a compromise.
Returned to Russia
In 2015 and 2017, he twice narrowly survived an attempt on his life due to poisoning. The attacks severely affected his health. Research group Bellingcat says Kara-Murza was poisoned by the unit of the Russian security service FSB that was also behind the August 2020 poisoning of Aleksej Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader.
In recent years, Kara-Moerza lived with his family in the US, but he returned last year, knowing that there is a good chance that he would be arrested. “Vladimir is a fighter,” his wife replied when asked why. “He sees himself as a Russian politician who has to fight with his people in Russia, on the front line. He has gone back in solidarity for the Russians who are standing up against the war.”
Kara-Moerza has long been a leading advocate of Western Magnitsky laws, which allow sanctions to be imposed on Russians involved in human rights violations or large-scale corruption. He himself believes that this is the main reason for his conviction.
It is striking that the judge who passed sentence on him was himself involved in the arrest and trial of the Russian whistleblower Magnitsky. As a result, he ended up on the Western sanctions lists in 2013 thanks to the efforts of Kara-Moerza. According to Kara-Moerza’s lawyers, this judge is therefore biased.
The European Union and the United States have called for Kara-Moerza’s release. The US and British governments are today summoning the Russian ambassadors. Amnesty International considers Vladimir Kara-Moerza a prisoner of conscience and calls on the Russian authorities to release him immediately and unconditionally.
Dozens of Kara-Moerza’s colleagues, such as Russian journalists and human rights activists, are also demanding his release, almost all from abroad. In a petition they call the charges against him unfounded and politically motivated. “Prosecute real killers and criminals instead of honest and responsible citizens who dare to think and speak the truth,” they write. “Stop Russia’s slide into Stalinism and a totalitarian system.”
A handful of journalists, sympathizers and ambassadors attended the court, including the Dutch ambassador, Gilles Beschoor-Plug. Kara-Moerza’s lawyer, Maria Eismont, told journalists that Kara-Moerza lost 22 kilograms during his detention.
He would also have medical problems with his lower extremities, probably the result of the poisonings in 2015 and 2017 “which will make serving the sentence difficult”, according to the lawyer.
In his closing statement, Kara-Moerza does not give up hope. “I know the day will come when the darkness will vanish over our land. When black will be black again, and white will be white again. When war will be called a war and those who started this war will be seen as criminals, in instead of those who tried to stop him.”
His lawyer reports on Telegram that Kara-Moerza felt his self-esteem grow because of the sentence. “I realized I was doing everything right,” he had said. “25 years is the highest score I could get for what I did, what I believed in as a citizen, as a patriot, as a politician. So I did everything right.”