Cutting off Russia’s long arm

Every month, Maria Kartasheva takes a day to send letters to Russian political prisoners. To cheer them up. She does so surrounded by friends in Ottawa, where she has lived since 2019. But for a few days, because of a decision by a Canadian official, the thirty-year-old of Russian origin had the fear of her life.

“I was afraid of becoming the one who was sent letters to behind bars,” she told me this week on the phone.

You see, even though she lives 7,000 kilometers from Moscow, she was “arrested” there and tried in absentia – in her absence – in April 2023 and sentenced to eight years in prison in November 2023.

His crime? Two internet publications about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Publications which mentioned the Boutcha massacres attributed to Russian soldiers. War crimes widely documented and denounced worldwide.


Burial of a Ukrainian civilian killed during the Russian occupation of Bucha at the start of the invasion

Since Russia has adopted a repressive law against false information about what the country calls a “special operation in Ukraine” and since it denies being responsible for the abuses in Boutcha, it gives itself the right to crack down against its citizens who question its twisted version of reality.

And that’s exactly what happened to Maria Kartasheva, who, at the time of the accusation, was a Russian citizen living in Canada. A Russian citizen who opposes the war in Ukraine and acts accordingly.

So far, nothing completely surprising. Russia has been condemning people more and more since the start of the war. According to the latest statistics from the Russian human rights organization OVD-info, 19,847 people were detained in Russia between the start of the invasion on February 24, 2022 and December 17, 2023 for their opposition to the war. Of these, 801 were subject to criminal charges. The accusation of “fake news” – which justified the conviction of Maria Kartasheva – is the favorite of Russian justice. It has been used 297 times and led to long prison sentences.

To get a good idea of ​​the severity of the conditions of detention of political prisoners in Russia, go see the exhibition Velvet Terrorism of Pussy Riot at the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art.

When she learned she was facing charges, Maria Kartasheva quickly notified Canadian authorities last spring.

When she received an invitation to a citizenship ceremony, she figured Canadian officials had understood the absurdity of Russian legal proceedings. She felt safe, far from the wrath of the Kremlin.

She was completely wrong. As she was about to take the oath, she was notified that her citizenship application would need to be re-examined.

It was in December that she received a letter that turned her life upside down. In this letter, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) informed him that he could not be granted citizenship.

For what ? According to Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, if someone is convicted abroad for an offense that also exists in the Canadian Criminal Code, they become ineligible for citizenship and also see their permanent residence called into question. In other words, he can become persona non grata in Canada.

In the case of Mme Kartasheva, the IRCC official, dug up an obscure Canadian “fake news” law, written to prevent individuals from spreading false rumors, and found it to be similar to Russian law.

If the federal employee had also taken the trouble to open the large binder that is available at the same ministry, he would have seen how Russia uses this type of law to intimidate dissidents, but it seems that this did not happen. been done.

Mme Instead, Kartasheva received notice that she was subject to the exclusion order and had 30 days to provide new information.

It was at this stage that the young woman switched to warrior mode. Thanks to a lawyer who helped her free of charge, to an article published by the CBC on January 5 which snowballed, as well as to a petition signed in just a few days by nearly 1,500 people – including several leading figures in the Russian dissidence in exile – things moved quickly.

The Minister of Immigration, Marc Miller, reacted to -he wrote on January 9, affirming that not only Mme Kartasheva would not be expelled from the country, but that she would be asked to take Canadian citizenship.


Maria Kartasheva taking the oath during her citizenship ceremony

The next day, the Ottawa resident received the announcement. “I was notified three hours before the ceremony. I barely had time to shower and change,” she laughs.

This improbable story has a happy ending, but it should serve as a lesson to the government. “I believe we live in a world where many autocratic regimes try to imitate democracy. They create laws that may seem fair and just, but are not. They do this exactly so they can condemn you and make it seem like you’re a danger, says Maria Kartasheva, catching her breath after having the scare of her life. There are going to be more and more cases like mine and Canada must be ready. »

She takes the words out of my mouth.


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