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Russia hunts spies and traitors — at home – POLITICO

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If there was a silver lining to her son being found guilty of high treason, it was that Yelena Gordon would have a rare chance to see him.

But when she attempted to enter the courtroom, she was told it was already full. But those who were excited were not the press or its supporters, since the hearing was closed.

“I recognized only one face there, the others were all strangers,” she later said, exasperated, before the Moscow City Court. “I felt like I had woken up in a Kafka novel.”

Eventually, after much coaxing, Gordon was able to stand next to Vladimir Kara-Murza, a wall of glass between her and her son, as the sentence was handed down.

Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison, an exorbitant figure previously reserved for major homicide cases, and the heaviest sentence for an opposition politician to date.

Most of it – 18 – was given for treason, for speeches he gave last year in the United States, Finland and Portugal.

For a man who had lobbied the West for anti-Russian sanctions such as the Magnitsky Act against perpetrators of human rights abuses – long before Russia invaded Ukraine – those rhetoric were totally banal.

But the prosecution called Kara-Murza’s words an existential threat to Russia’s security.

“He is the enemy and he must be punished,” prosecutor Boris Loktionov said during the trial, according to Kara-Murza’s lawyer.

The judge, whose name appears on the Magnitsky list as a perpetrator of human rights violations, agreed. And the Russian Foreign Ministry followed suit, declaring: “Traitors and traitors, hailed by the West, will get what they deserve.

Redefine the enemy

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, hundreds of Russians have been fined or jailed for years under new military censorship laws.

But never before has the nuclear charge of treason been used to convict someone for public statements containing publicly available information.

A screen installed in a hall of the Moscow City Court shows the verdict in the case against Vladimir Kara-Murza | Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

The verdict came a day after an appeal hearing in the same court for Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich who, in a move unprecedented since the end of the Cold War, is accused of spying ‘for the American side’. .

Taken together, the two cases set a historic precedent for modern Russia, expanding and formalizing its hunt for internal enemies.

“The state, the [Kremlin]decided to significantly expand the ‘target list’ for treason and espionage charges,” Andrei Soldatov, an expert with Russia’s security services, told POLITICO.

Until now, the worst feared by the foreign press was the revocation of its accreditation by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is changing.

For Kremlin critics, of course, the gloves have been taken off for much longer – before his incarceration, Kara-Murza survived two poisonings. He had been a close ally of Boris Nemtsov, assassinated in 2015 under the eyes of the Kremlin.

But such reprisals were reserved for only a handful of prominent dissidents and carried out by anonymous hitmen and undercover agents.

After Putin signed legislation last week extending the sentence for treason from 20 years to life, anyone could be stamped out of public life with the stamp of legitimacy of a robed judge.

“Bring up the topic of political repression over coffee with a stranger, and it could already be seen as treason,” Oleg Orlov, chairman of the disbanded human rights group Memorial, said outside the palace. of righteousness.

Like many, he saw a parallel with Soviet times, when tens of thousands of “enemies of the state” were accused of spying for foreign governments and sent to remote labor camps or simply executed. , and foreigners were by definition suspect.

Betrayal as a catch-all

Instead of the usual commission of inquiry, treason cases fall under Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, which makes them particularly secretive.

In court, hearings are held behind closed doors – shielded from the public and the press – and defense lawyers are practically gagged.

But they were relatively rare: between 2009 and 2013, a total of 25 people were tried for espionage or treason, according to Russian court statistics. After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, this number fluctuated from a handful to a maximum of 17.

Former defense journalist Ivan Safronov in court, April 2022 | Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Involving academics, Crimean Tatars and the military accused of passing sensitive information to foreign parties, they have generally received little attention.

The imprisonment of Ivan Safronov – a former defense journalist accused of sharing state secrets with a Czech acquaintance – was a significant exception in 2020. It sparked massive outcry among his peers and brought to light treason law. Apparently, even sharing information gleaned from public sources could result in a conviction.

Combined with an amendment introduced after anti-Kremlin protests in 2012 that labeled as treason any aid to a “foreign organization aimed at undermining Russian security”, it turned the law into a powder keg.

In February 2022, this was burnt down.

Angered by the war but too scared to protest publicly, some Russians have sought to support Ukraine in less visible ways, such as by donating to humanitarian organizations.

The response was swift: Just three days after Putin announced his special military operation, Russia’s prosecutor general’s office warned that it would check “every case of financial or other aid” for signs of treason.

Thousands of Russians have been plunged into a legal abyss. “I transferred 100 rubles to a Ukrainian NGO. Is this the end?” read a question and answer card shared on social media by legal aid group Pervy Otdel.

“The current situation is such that [treason] article will probably be applied more widely,” warned Senator Andrei Klimov, head of the defense committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament.

Invent traitors

Last summer, the law was revised once again to define defectors as traitors as well.

Ivan Pavlov, who oversees Pervy Otdel from exile after he was forced to flee Russia for defending Safronov, estimates around 70 treason cases have already been launched since the start of the war, double the peak in years of before the war. And the pace seems to be picking up.

Regional media headlines reporting treason arrests are becoming almost commonplace. Sometimes they include high-octane video footage of FSB teams storming people’s homes and getting purported confessions on camera.

Yet, from what can be gleaned from the leaked media cases, their evidence is flimsy.

Instead of the usual investigative commission, treason cases fall under Russia’s Federal Security Service, the FSB, which makes them particularly secretive | Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

In December last year, 21-year-old Savely Frolov became the first to be charged with conspiracy to defect. Among the incriminating evidence reported, he attempted to cross into neighboring Georgia with a pair of camouflage pants in the trunk of his car.

In early April this year, a married couple was arrested in the industrial city of Nizhny Tagil for allegedly collaborating with Ukrainian intelligence services. The two men worked at a nearby defense factory, but acquaintances quoted by the independent Russian media Holod deny having had access to secret information.

“It is a reaction to the war: there is a demand from above for traitors. And if they can’t find real ones, they make them up, make them up,” Pavlov said.

Although official statistics are only released with a two-year lag, he has no doubt that a flood of guilty verdicts is coming.

“The first and last time a treason suspect was acquitted in Russia was in 1999.”

No signs of slowing down

Based on precedent, Gershkovich will likely eventually be subject to a prisoner exchange.

This is what happened with Brittney Griner, an American basketball star imprisoned for drug trafficking when she entered Russia with vaping cartridges of hashish.

And this is also what happened with the last foreign journalist detained, in 1986 when the American Nicholas Daniloff was allegedly caught in the act of spying, like Gershkovich.

At the time, several other people were released with him, including Yury Orlov, a human rights activist sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp for “anti-Soviet activity”.

Some now harbor hopes that a deal involving Gershkovich could also help Kara-Murza, who is well known in Washington circles and suffers from serious health issues.

For ordinary Russians, any glimmer of hope that the traitor push will slow down is even less tangible.

Those POLITICO spoke to said that a mass campaign against traitors in Soviet times is unlikely, if only because the Kremlin has a fine line to follow: arrest too many traitors and that risks shattering the image that the Russians unanimously support the war.

Some hope a deal involving Gershkovich could also help Kara-Murza, who is well known in Washington circles | Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE

And in the age of modern technology, there are easier ways to deliver a message to a large audience. “If Stalin had had a TV channel, there probably wouldn’t have been a need for mass repression,” Pavlov said.

Yet the state’s repressive apparatus seems to have its own momentum, as those who investigate and prosecute cases of treason and espionage are rewarded with bonuses and promotions.

At first, the treason case against Kara-Murza was conducted by the Investigative Committee, opening the door for the FSB to massively increase its work capacity by offloading the work to others, Soldatov explains.

“If the FSB can’t deal with it, the investigative committee will intervene.”

In the public sphere, patriotic officials at all levels are calling for an even tougher line, going so far as to offer the names of political rivals and seemingly unpatriotic celebrities for investigation.

Calls have been made for “traitors” to be stripped of their citizenship and reintroduce the death penalty.

In a telling sign, veteran Kara-Murza lawyer Vadim Prokhorov has fled Russia, fearing he may be the next target.

Аs Orlov, the dissident who was part of the 1986 exchange and who became an early critic of Putin, wrote at the start of Putin’s reign in 2004: “Russia flies in time.

Almost two decades later, the question in Moscow today is simple: until when?



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