In a case that has attracted international condemnation, Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza has been sentenced to 25 years in prison -- the harshest punishment ever handed down to a Kremlin opponent in the post-Soviet era -- on charges stemming mainly from his outspoken criticism of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
The lion’s share of his sentence -- 18 years -- was for alleged “state treason,” a charge that is being used more and more often across Russia. In his closing statement in court on April 10, Kara-Murza warned of the turn President Vladimir Putin has taken, evoking the license given to prosecutors and the secret police during the Great Terror under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
“I’ve been surprised by how far my trial, in its secrecy and contempt for legal norms, has surpassed even the ‘trials’ of Soviet dissidents in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said. “And that’s not even to mention the harsh sentence requested by the prosecution or the talk of ‘enemies of the state.’ In this respect, we’ve gone far beyond the 1970s – all the way back to the 1930s. As a historian, for me this is an occasion for reflection.”
As Russia’s war against Ukraine drags on with no sign of any resolution in sight, Putin’s government has unleashed the Federal Security Service (FSB), which this year has opened a number of treason cases that is unprecedented in modern Russian history.
“They have been given the green light to open serious criminal cases,” said human rights lawyer Dmitry Zair-Bek, who heads the First Department human rights project. “It must have come from the very top since [these cases] are being investigated at the highest level, by the First Department of the FSB’s Investigations Section. This is a small department, the same one that investigated our client, journalist Ivan Safronov and other cases of ‘state treason.’”
Safronov was sentenced to 22 years in prison in September 2022, following his conviction on a treason charge that he denied and that was widely seen as politically motivated.
“This shows how important [these cases] are for the political leadership of the country and for the security agencies themselves,” Zair-Bek said.
'The Government Doesn't Let You Do Anything'
Kostyantyn Pashchenko lives in the central Ukrainian city of Kropyvnytskiy.
His lifelong friend Igor Pokusin -- a 60-year-old native of Odesa who has lived in Abakan, the capital of Russia’s Republic of Khakassia, since Soviet times – was arrested in December and faces treason charges for allegedly trying to volunteer to serve in Ukraine’s military. Earlier, he had been arrested and fined for defacing a pro-war poster with the blue-and-yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.
"I don’t approve of what he did with the paint,” Pashchenko told RFE/RL. “Could anyone in Abakan know that had something to do with Ukraine?"
Pashchenko suggested that his friend was doomed by that modest act of defiance.
"You can protest in Ukraine or in Georgia," he told RFE/RL. "But [in Russia] the government doesn’t let you do anything. The state will simply eat you.”
On April 4, the state news agency TASS reported that FSB officers in Nizhny Tagil, a city in the Urals, had arrested an unidentified married couple and charged them with treason for allegedly handing over “military-technical information” -- a term that usually refers to information about weapons production -- to the Ukrainian secret services.
On March 13, the FSB reported it had detained an unidentified man in the western Novgorod region for spying for Ukraine. The agency said the man had been trying to get mobilized Russian soldiers to reveal the locations of their units in Ukraine.
On March 2, the FSB announced the arrest of a man in the Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, more than 9,000 kilometers from the front lines in Ukraine, for allegedly spying for Kyiv. Although no information has been released in this case -- as is the normal practice in Russia for treason prosecutions -- RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities was able to identify the suspect, who is a former soldier who was retired and worked as a security guard. He was arrested in his home at 5 a.m. on February 23.
“They took all the recordings from the security cameras,” a neighbor told RFE/RL. “All the residents were orally warned not to say anything until the official video is released.”
“He was a pleasant man, calm, considerate, sober,” the neighbor added. “I can’t imagine what he was arrested for.”
'S' For Secrecy
In February, a court in the Khanty-Mansi region in western Siberia sentenced an unidentified resident to 12 1/2 years in prison for treason. The only information provided about the case was that the defendant had purportedly been previously convicted of an unspecified crime.
“The trial was closed,” read RFE/RL’s Siberia.Realities report of the case on February 21. “The court did not release the name, age, or gender of the accused.”
The report added the Kafkaesque detail that the defendant was identified only by the letter S.
In 2022, 22 cases of treason were opened in Russia. So far this year, at least 20 cases have already been announced – nine of them in March alone. More than half of the 2023 cases were reported in the Far East.
“I predict that by the end of 2023, we’ll know of about 100 cases under this article,” rights lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
'Ordinary People Just Pulled Out Of The Crowd'
But the announced cases could be just the tip of the iceberg. Treason cases in Russia are handled with such secrecy that the government’s own announcements are normally the only way they reach the public. And the FSB only releases information that is “beneficial to them,” Smirnov said.
Zair-Bek gave a similar assessment.
“I think we only know about 30 or 40 percent of all treason cases. In reality, there may be many more,” he told RFE/RL.
Moreover, in the past almost all the defendants in Russian treason cases were academics, officials, or military personnel who had access to secret information. Now, however, the accused come from all walks of life.
“In my view, the accusations in the cases that we know about seem pretty unsubstantiated,” Zair-Bek said. “From what we know of the suspects, they are completely ordinary people just pulled out of the crowd.”
All the suspects face the prospect of long stretches in pretrial detention, a closed-door trial, and up to 20 years in prison.
On March 13, the FSB announced the arrest of a woman in the Far Eastern city of Kharbarovsk for allegedly sending money to the Ukrainian military. The only information about the suspect that was released was that she was supposedly an activist in the regional protest movement to support former Governor Sergei Furgal, whose 2020 arrest after he won a landslide election against the Kremlin’s candidate sparked outrage and weeks of demonstrations.
The pro-Furgal group released a statement saying they suspect “this is a continuation of efforts to discredit the Sergei Furgal movement.”
“I asked our people at the time,” activist Valentin Kvashnikov told RFE/RL. “None of them was detained. So we suspect this was a ruse by the FSB. Just to have something to show on television…. None of our people knows her. This is pure provocation. There aren’t so many of us that we wouldn’t recognize her.”
Life In Prison
On April 7, amendments to the Criminal Code were introduced in the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s legislature, that would punish treason with life in prison. The Duma’s legislation committee has already approved the measure in its first reading.
Lawyer Smirnov said the harsher penalty could make prosecutions for treason easier and even more frequent.
“In general, people detained under this article tend to confess or they make a deal with investigators in which, first, they confess and, second, they give testimony against some other person for a crime, usually also treason,” he said. “[The authorities] suppose that a life sentence will make it easier to frighten people to get them to do what the investigators want them to do.”
“It is impossible to say who the potential victims of this statute will be,” he added. “Bread sellers. The unemployed. Completely random people all over the country who had no idea that whatever they were doing might be some sort of treason.”