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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 July 2018

Kremlin critic urges Trump to raise political prisoners with Putin

Prominent Russian democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza said Trump should not attempt to accommodate Putin

The July 16 meeting in Helsinki between Mr Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin is aimed at warming ties with Moscow, at a time when Russia’s relations with the West languish at levels not seen since the Cold War. AP Photo/Evan Vucci
The July 16 meeting in Helsinki between Mr Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin is aimed at warming ties with Moscow, at a time when Russia’s relations with the West languish at levels not seen since the Cold War. AP Photo/Evan Vucci

A fierce opponent of the Kremlin urged US president Donald Trump Monday to avoid accommodating his Russian counterpart during an upcoming summit, and instead use the occasion to discuss political prisoners held by Moscow.

The July 16 meeting in Helsinki between Mr Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin is aimed at warming ties with Moscow, at a time when Russia’s relations with the West languish at levels not seen since the Cold War.

But Vladimir Kara-Murza, a historian and prominent Russian democracy activist, warned that Trump should not follow an “unfortunate bipartisan tradition of US presidents”, who over the past 19 years have initially sought to accommodate Putin.

“For a former officer of the KGB... compromise from an interlocutor is (seen as) a sign of weakness,” Kara-Murza told reporters on the sidelines of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“As Mr Trump prepares to extend a hand of cooperation to Mr Putin... I think we can be pretty certain of the final outcome,” he warned.

Both sides have played down expectations of what the talks can hope to produce, saying the meeting is an achievement in itself.

It remains unclear if Mr Trump will raise the allegations that Russian agents interfered in Western elections, including his own 2016 campaign, or if he will mention alleged rights abuses.

Mr Kara-Murza, an ally of the late opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead close to the Kremlin in 2015, meanwhile said discussing democratic and human rights should not jeopardise other negotiations.

He pointed out that Ronald Reagan in the 1980s “would begin all of his bilateral summits with the Soviet leadership by placing down a list of Soviet political prisoners on the table and demanding their release”.

“At the same time he was able to successfully negotiate arms control,” he said.

Mr Kara-Murza, 36, who serves as vice-chairman of the Open Russia foundation of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who served a decade in jail after openly opposing Mr Putin, called for Trump and other democratic leaders to especially address the political prisoner issue.

He pointed to “conservative” estimates from leading rights group Memorial that 156 people are currently being held for their political or religious beliefs in the country – “higher than the figure that existed in the late Soviet times”.

He stressed the case of Alexei Pichugin, who has been held for more than 15 years, making him “the longest serving of Russia’s political prisoners”.

Mr Pichugin, serving a life sentence for “organisation of murder”, was the former security chief at Khodorkovsky’s defunct oil giant Yukos.

The European Court of Human Rights has twice ruled that his rights to a fair trial were violated.

“It is absolutely unacceptable ... to use the judicial system as a tool of political persecution,” Mr Kara-Murza said.

The democracy champion, who himself has landed in a coma twice since 2015 due to the effects of poisoning, urged democratic nations to stand up in solidarity with Mr Putin opponents under attack.

He called on Geneva to follow the recent examples of Washington and Vilnius and name the street outside the Russian mission after his fallen friend Nemtsov.

“Russian authorities have blocked every effort ... for any kind of commemoration,” he said.

“We are very grateful to citizens and elected representatives in free countries that are doing what we for now cannot do.”