A Russian court has convicted a top opposition figure of treason for publicly denouncing Moscow’s war in Ukraine and sentenced the dual Russian-British citizen to 25 years in prison as part of the Kremlin’s relentless crackdown on critics of the invasion.
Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr, a 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 Joseph Stalin.
Human rights organisations and western governments denounced the verdict and demanded his release.
Amnesty International declared the 41-year-old to be a prisoner of conscience.
Days after the invasion, Russia adopted a law criminalising spreading “false information” about its military.
Authorities have used the law to stifle criticism of what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation”.
The sweeping campaign of repression is unprecedented since the Soviet era, effectively criminalising independent reporting on the conflict and any public criticism of the war.
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 anti-war 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.
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.
“This day will come as inevitably as spring comes to replace even the frostiest winter.”
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 realised 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.”
“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,” Kara-Murza’s wife, Evgenia, who lives in the US with their children, tweeted after the verdict.
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 Mr Nemtsov lobbied for passage of the Magnitsky Act in the US.
The law, enacted by Congress in 2012, was in response to the death in prison of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had exposed a tax fraud scheme.
The law has allowed 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 under the Magnitsky Act after ordering Mr Magnitsky’s arrest in 2008.
Mr Podoprigorov had petitioned US authorities in 2018 to lift the sanctions against him, according to Kara-Murza’s lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov.
During Kara-Murza’s trial, Mr Prokhorov twice asked Mr Podoprigorov to recuse himself, to no avail, Russian media reported.
Kara-Murza survived poisonings in 2015 and 2017 that he blamed on the Kremlin.
Russian officials have denied responsibility.
Another prominent opposition figure, Ilya Yashin, was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison late last year on charges of discrediting the military.
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 so-called ‘crimes’ Vladimir Kara-Murza was tried for – speaking out against the invasion and advocacy on behalf of victims of human rights violations – are in fact acts of outstanding bravery,” Amnesty’s Russia director Natalia Zviagina said in a statement.
“This verdict wrongly conflates human rights activism with ‘high treason’ and is reminiscent of Stalin-era repression.”
The group declared Kara-Murza a prisoner of conscience, convicted solely for his political beliefs, and demanded his immediate and unconditional release.
Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest and most prominent human rights organisations that was named a co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize along with human rights defenders from Ukraine and Belarus, has also 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 civilised countries”.
The British, American, German and other 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 UN Charter,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement.
The Foreign Office said it summoned Russian ambassador Andrey Kelin over the conviction.
The British Government previously sanctioned the judge presiding at the trial 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 US State Department hailed Kara-Murza along with jailed Russian 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.
UN human rights chief Volker Turk called the sentence “another blow to the rule of law and civic space in the Russian Federation”.
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.