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Opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza in Moscow. © 2021 AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

(Berlin) – Russian authorities’ new spurious charge against opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza is a thinly veiled threat to the Russian public not to engage in dissent, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian authorities should immediately free Kara-Murza and drop all charges against him.

Kara-Murza was informed of the new charge, of involvement in an “undesirable” foreign organization, on August 3, 2022. He has been in detention since April on a trumped-up charge of spreading “fake news” about the Russian Armed Forces for his public criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“It is now a pattern for the Kremlin to throw its critics behind bars on spurious charges and then continue to add new bogus charges against them to keep them there,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The new charge against Kara-Murza is a blatant attempt to instill more fear among Russia’s civil society and deter it from mobilizing against the Kremlin and its war against Ukraine.”

Kara-Murza’s detention and prosecution is part of Russian authorities’ accelerated efforts to punish and silence all dissent, Human Rights Watch said.

In April, the police detained Kara-Murza on administrative grounds near his home in Moscow, claiming, falsely, that he had disobeyed police orders. While he was in detention, the authorities brought criminal charges of spreading “deliberately false information” about the Russian army for a speech he made before the Arizona House of Representatives in the United States, in March.

During his speech, he said that “the whole world sees what Putin’s regime is doing to Ukraine: the cluster bombs on residential areas, the bombings of maternity wards and hospitals and schools,” referring to these acts as war crimes. The prosecution claims that Kara-Murza’s speech was guided by “political hatred” against Russian authorities, an aggravated circumstance. Kara-Murza faces up to 10 years in prison on these charges.

The new charge carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison. The investigators also opened a new case against Kara-Murza in July, alleging that he used funds from the US-based Free Russia Foundation, which the Russian authorities banned as “undesirable” in 2019, to organize a conference in October 2021.

Under Russia’s repressive “undesirables” laws, the prosecutor’s office can designate as “undesirable” any foreign or international organization that allegedly undermines Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. The organization must then cease its activities in Russia, and Russian citizens’ continued involvement with such organizations carries a criminal penalty of up to six years in prison.

More than 60 organizations have been blacklisted as “undesirable.” Russian authorities continue to expand the law to widen the scope of people who can be designated “undesirable” and of what constitutes “involvement.” So far in 2022, Russian courts have sentenced two activists to several years in prison on “undesirable” charges.

Kara-Murza had been a vice president of the Free Russia Foundation and a coordinator of Open Russia civic movement, both designated as “undesirable” by Russian authorities. He stepped down from his position at Free Russia Foundation in 2019 and Open Russia closed in May 2021.

In cruel irony, the conference that the authorities are using to incriminate Kara-Murza was dedicated to political prisoners in Russia and was co-organized by Russia’s prominent human rights group Memorial and the Sakharov Center, Human Rights Watch said. Co-organizers Sergey Davidis, of Memorial, and Sergey Lukashevsky, director of the Sakharov Center, publicly stated that the 2021 conference was organized together with Kara-Murza in his individual capacity, and that Free Russia Foundation had no involvement.

Kara-Murza’s lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, told Human Rights Watch that he believes the authorities have made these spurious charges against Kara-Murza “to demonstrate that they can do whatever they want.”

When the police detained Kara-Murza in April, they denied his lawyers access to him at the police station for at least 12 hours, and his defense team is experiencing difficulties transmitting case materials to and from his detention facility. The courts have repeatedly closed preliminary hearings in Kara-Murza’s case to the public. His defense team is concerned that the trial may also take place behind closed doors, compounding concerns that Kara-Murza will be denied a fair trial.

Kara-Murza has been a vocal critic of Kremlin for years and was 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 (FSB). He has called for sanctions against the Kremlin and has spoken before political bodies throughout Europe, in the US, and at many international and intergovernmental forums, including the UN.

“The fake charges against Kara-Murza are purely politically motivated, and he should be immediately and unconditionally released, as should the many other Russians prosecuted on outrageous ‘fake news,’ ‘undesirable,’ and similar charges,” Williamson said. “The Russian authorities need to stop misusing and manipulating the justice system in their desperate efforts to stomp out dissent and opposition.”

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