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Stalin-style show trials demand we go further to make sure Russia sanctions bite


4 min read

On 17 April Vladimir Kara-Murza, a political prisoner in Russia, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for publicly opposing Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Kara-Murza is a British-Russian dual national, a long-standing opposition politician, historian, journalist and filmmaker. His prison sentence follows his relentless and Kafkaesque persecution, including two attempts to poison him.

During a meeting in Parliament with Evgenia, his brave wife, she told me about her fears for his life and of her determination to use every opportunity to take his fight beyond the prison walls. We must do the same.

I have tabled an amendment which tackles the hiding of illicit funds and dirty cash and moves beyond sanctions to the seizing of assets

For previous involvement in human rights violations, the United Kingdom had rightly sanctioned the trial judge in Kara-Murza’s case. However, back in September 34 parliamentarians wrote to the Foreign Secretary urging him to place targeted sanctions on others involved in Kara-Murza’s arrest, detention, prosecution and mistreatment. It was welcome, then, that on Friday last James Cleverly did announce some additional sanctions. Now he should also urgently consider how these sanctions can be made to bite.

The Economic Crime Bill, currently before the Lords, enables us to make the use of sanctions more effective of hitting those who bankroll the Putin regime. I have tabled an all-party amendment which tackles the hiding of illicit funds and dirty cash and moves beyond sanctions to the seizing of assets. 

Existing sanctions on nearly 1,500 individuals – including 120 oligarchs with a net worth of £140bn sounds impressive but the Office of Sanctions Implementation reports that, in total, assets worth only £18bn associated with the regime have been frozen since the beginning of Putin’s war.

Transparency International UK has found that luxury homes worth £700m previously linked to sanctioned oligarchs have not been flagged as restricted on the UK property register.

If we are truly serious about defending courageous democrats like Kara-Murza and showing that a high price must be paid for the war crimes of Ukraine, in part it will be achieved by hitting the pockets of those who have collaborated with Putin.  

And Vladimir Kara-Murza’s case is far from unique.

Today’s arrests and trials are reminiscent of Stalin’s Great Terror – and the decades which followed – when the knock on the door in the dead of night led to dissenting voices being despatched to gulags, prisons or mental hospitals where many died in captivity.

It’s Putin’s model. The same carousel of arbitrary prosecutions and trumped-up bogus charges have been used against other prominent democrats unjustly arraigned before the Star Chambers that pass for courts.

Alexei Navalny is the country’s leading opposition figure. A lawyer, and anti-corruption activist, he is serving a long prison sentence in the IK-6 penal colony, about 150 miles east of Moscow. Last week he was further charged with thwarting the prison authorities, which carries a further potential sentence of five years. 

Ilya Yashin, another opposition leader, was arrested and accused of spreading “false information” about the military, for discussing on his YouTube channel the killings of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine, by Russian troops. Sentenced to eight and a half years in prison, last week he lost his appeal.

On being sentenced to seven years in prison, a defiant Alexei Gorinov, a deputy of Moscow's Krasnoselsky district council, said in court: “I am convinced that this war is the fastest route to dehumanization, when the line between good and evil is blurred. War is always violence and blood, torn bodies and severed limbs. It is always death. I do not accept this and reject it.”

The bravery of Gorinov, Yashin, Navalny, Kara-Murza and others is the courageous response to the new Great Terror and it should stir us into raising our own voices on their behalf.

Why is Putin so determined to silence dissent? First, to ensure Russians are denied knowledge about the war, its consequences, and the senselessness of this suffering. Second, to show that either you are with Putin, or not. If you are not with Putin, there will be consequences.

But this also exposes his own insecurity and weakness.

Just as Putin misjudged Ukraine, he may also have gravely misjudged the consequences of is assault on courageous dissenting voices and the international attention that these cases have generated.

A new generation of Solzhenitsyns and Sakharovs are in the making, bravely fighting Putin from within. Their words and deeds will ultimately prove mightier than Putin’s terror.


Lord Alton, crossbench peer

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