The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The once poisoned and imprisoned foes of Putin gather in London

Russian dissidents and their Western allies honor Sergei Magnitsky.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks in St. Petersburg on Friday. (Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin pool/EPA-EFE) (Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kreml Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

LONDON — Wanted by the Kremlin? Check. Served time in a Russian jail? Check. Allegedly poisoned by the Russian state? Check.

The most high-profile guests at the Sergei Magnitsky Human Rights Awards last Thursday have something in common: They are thorns in the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Now in its fourth year, the gathering sees Russian dissidents and their allies hobnob in the heart of London, just a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament.

While a jazz band played soft tunes, dissenters embraced each other and quaffed champagne, before getting down to the very serious business of toppling the Russian government.

“The only thing we ask of the West is to stop supporting Vladimir Putin’s regime,” said Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian activist, who has twice been poisoned on home soil, each time falling into a coma. Kara-Murza said the attacks bear the signature of Russian security services.

Kara-Murza, who is the vice chairman of Open Russia, a Russian-led pro-democracy organization, said Putin is aided by the West “treating him as a worthy and respectable partner on the world stage. Unfortunately so many Western leaders have done this for so long.”

Open Russia is a nonprofit founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, who was jailed in Russia on what he says are politically motivated tax charges. Khodorkovsky, in exile in Britain, also attended the ceremony.

Magnitsky Awards are given to lawyers, journalists, activists and Western politicians who have fought injustice they describe as perpetrated by the Russian state.

They are the brainchild of Bill Browder, an American-born financier who was once the richest foreign investor in Russia. Wanted by Russia, which has an Interpol arrest warrant out for him, Browder named the awards after his lawyer, who died in a Russian jail in 2009 after exposing a massive fraud involving Russian officials. Magnitsky’s family and friends say he was tortured and beaten to death by his jailers.

This led Browder to persuade Congress to pass the 2012 Magnitsky Act, allowing the United States to restrict travel and freeze the assets of any individuals who have committed gross violations of human rights in Russia; the list of sanctioned Russians now stands at 49.

The Magnitsky Act is reviled by Russia, which has worked very hard to try stop it, including sending a Kremlin-linked lawyer to meet Donald Trump Jr. in 2016, where they discussed the possibility of repealing it.

One of the law’s key advocates was Sen. John McCain, who was posthumously honored Thursday. His daughter Meghan McCain collected the award.

In a speech that ended with a standing ovation, McCain delivered a sharply worded polemic contrasting her father and Russian dissidents to Putin, whom she called a “dictator” and a “killer”.

“The world is entering a new era of strong men and autocrats, animated by a new nationalism that recaptures the glorious past and repackages it,” McCain said.

Hinting at her father’s open criticism of President Trump, McCain continued, “There are those, I am ashamed to say, even in America, who look at (the Russian regime) and ask, ‘what’s so bad about it?’ ”

Kara-Murza, who was chosen by Sen. McCain to be a pallbearer at his funeral, presented Meghan McCain with the award.

Reflecting the oppressive environment in which Russian activists must operate, not all awardees were able to attend. As if to hammer home the point, opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov were missing from the ceremony.

Navalny was in Strasbourg, being vindicated by Europe’s top human rights court following arrests after organizing street protests across Russia. Sentsov, a native of Crimea who vociferously opposed Russia’s annexation of the peninsula, is languishing in a Russian jail.

In 2016, the Global Magnitsky Act extended to human rights violators outside of Russia, serving sanctions against Myanmar’s military for atrocities committed against the Rohingya population and former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh.

On the same day of the Magnitsky awards ceremony, the U.S. government announced sanctions against 17 Saudis in connection with the murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Though Putin loomed large at the awards, organizers said they were keen to continue taking their fight global.

“The atrocities going on in the world are not confined to Russia. Russia has certainly set the pace for other bad guys to keep up with. There are plenty of other bad guys as well,” said Browder.