Russia: First Treason Charges for Criticizing Kremlin
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Russia: First Treason Charges for Criticizing Kremlin

Russia: First Treason Charges for Criticizing Kremlin

(Berlin, October 7, 2022) – Russian authorities have brought a charge of high treason against an opposition politician, Vladimir Kara-Murza, in a blatant attempt to quash any criticism of the Kremlin and deter contact with the international community, Human Rights Watch said today. This is the third baseless criminal charge against Kara-Murza since he was detained in April 2022. He has already been indicted for spreading “fake news” about the Russian Armed Forces because he publicly criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and for alleged involvement with an “undesirable” foreign organization. He now risks an additional sentence of up 20 years if convicted on high treason charges. “Vladimir Kara-Murza is a longstanding proponent of democratic values and has been a vocal opponent of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s war on Ukraine,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is painfully obvious that the Kremlin sees Kara-Murza as a direct and imminent threat. These charges against him and his prolonged detention are a travesty of justice. Russian authorities should immediately and unconditionally free Kara-Murza and drop all charges against him.” Vadim Prokhorov, Kara-Murza’s lawyer, said the high treason charges relate to Kara-Murza’s public criticism of the Russian authorities in international forums. Kara-Murza has called for sanctions against the Kremlin and has spoken in person before national political bodies throughout Europe and in the United States, and at many international and intergovernmental forums, including at the United Nations. He was a key figure advocating for the US Magnitsky Act that gave rise to the Global Magnitsky sanctions regime for serious human rights violations. Kara-Murza was also a close friend of the murdered Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov. He survived two near-fatal poisonings, in 2015 and 2017, which Bellingcat investigative journalists reported was most likely orchestrated by the Russian Federal Security Service and which the Russian authorities have failed to investigate. Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine started in February, the Russian authorities have expanded their repressive toolbox. In March, Russian authorities criminalized calls for sanctions against Russia, and in July also criminalized “confidential cooperation” with foreign states, international or foreign organizations as well as public calls for action that are “against national interests.” These new provisions cannot be applied retroactively to the years of advocacy by Kara-Murza, Human Rights Watch said, and so he is being charged with high treason under Russia’s criminal code, which was expanded in November 2012.

The definition was expanded to include consultations or any other assistance to a foreign state or international or foreign organizations. The year Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency, Russian state propagandists opened a smear campaign against Russia’s civil society.

They cast technical assistance and contact with foreign counterparts and international donors as shady activities that are harmful to the Russian state and society, and labeled those who carry them out as being on the payroll of the “West.” Ivan Pavlov, an expert on high treason cases, notes that this will be the first time this specific component of high treason, on assisting foreign or international organizations, has been used. In September, Andrey Klimov, the head of the Senate Commission on Protection of State Sovereignty and Prevention of Interventions into Russia’s State Affairs, explicitly referred to calling for sanctions against Russia as ground for prosecution on high treason charges, and expressed regret that such charges had not already been brought against people supporting sanctions. Russia’s rules on prosecution and trial of treason cases also breach human rights safeguards, in particular fair trial guarantees. For example, the criminal case materials in such proceedings are classified so that the defense team may not have access to key pieces of evidence, and the trial takes place behind closed doors, preventing public scrutiny. Ivan Safronov, a journalist, was recently convicted of high treason and sentenced to 22 years in maximum security prison and given a substantial fine for his journalistic investigations of defense contracts, spotlighting how treason cases are handled. He was tried behind closed doors, key evidence obtained by fellow journalists was not accepted by the court, and his defense team came under immense pressure. Two of his lawyers had to flee the country, and a third was detained on accusations of spreading false information and remains in detention. “Sadly, it is unrealistic to expect that fair trial standards will be observed in Kara-Murza’s case,” Williamson said. “By jailing leaders like him, Russian authorities are attempting to instill fear in the Russian people and eradicate any opportunity for civil society to mobilize and oppose the Kremlin and its war.” .

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