Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Putin, a hypocrite on Snowden, Navalny

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Fri July 19, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: NSA spying revelations have brought joy to world's violators of human rights
  • Ghitis: While Russia convicts corruption-fighter Alexei Navalny, it defends Snowden
  • She says Navatny is the most prominent of a long series of politically-motivated prosecutions
  • Ghitis: Putin is basking in moral relativism, feeling his abuses are OK by criticizing U.S. spying

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns.

(CNN) -- One of the many disturbing aspects of the NSA spying revelations is how much joy they have brought to the world's chronic violators of human rights and political freedoms.

On Thursday in Moscow, where former NSA contractor Edward Snowden awaits his asylum papers, a Russian court removed a major critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin's list of worries, sentencing the charismatic opposition leader Alexei Navalny to five years in jail on theft charges. Amid intense anger at the verdict and fears that it would raise Navalny's profile, the court agreed on Friday to release him pending appeal.

The trial and the predictable verdict, as the European Union foreign affairs chief said, "raises serious questions as to the state of the rule of law in Russia." That's putting it mildly. Navatny is the most prominent, but just one in a long series of politically-motivated prosecutions in a country where the courts seldom make a move that displeases Putin.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

Navalny was particularly worrisome to the Russian president. He had gained an enormous following by speaking out against corruption and cronyism, labeling Putin's United Russia "a party of swindlers and thieves" and using social media to help mobilize the president's critics. He had just announced he would run for mayor of Moscow. But, like other Putin opponents with any possible chance to loosen the president's complete hold on power, he will likely go to prison instead. Now that he's released, Navalny is considering whether to stay or withdraw from the race for mayor.

Meanwhile, Putin and his backers are having a field day. They claim it is Washington that leads the world in violating human rights, even as dozens of people who dared protest against Putin's rule face trial or languish in jail, in a country where a number of journalists who criticized the president have turned up dead under mysterious circumstances.

When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the wealthiest man in Russia, decided to turn his attention from business to politics, the tax authorities turned on him. He was sent to prison in Siberia, and when he became eligible for parole, the state filed another case, winning another conviction which extended his sentence.

Then there's the case of Sergei Magnitsky. The government auditor was sent to investigate the investment firm Heritage Capital, which was charged with tax evasion. When Magnitsky concluded the tax fraud was actually coming from the government side and became a whistleblower, naming a network of corrupt officials, he was accused of working for Heritage and thrown in jail, where he became ill, was denied medical treatment and died in 2009, when he was just 37. The United States responded with the Magnitsky Law, imposing sanctions on those involved in his death.

Pussy Riot husband describes Navalny
Kremlin critic convicted of embezzlement
Snowden applies for temporary asylum

Death didn't save Magnitsky from Russia's courts, which found him guilty of tax fraud just last week.

Many others, including the performance group Pussy Riot, have seen even small scale political activism land them in jail.

For Putin, having Snowden in Russia creates many complications, but he has hardly managed to conceal his glee at having America's top critic under his protection. He has made it clear that he wants Snowden to refrain from harming U.S.-Russian relations, and as a former KGB spy himself, the Russian president would risk ridicule if he ventured too far in criticizing NSA actions.

Still, Putin derived visible satisfaction from having Snowden land in Russia's lap, armed with material to discredit the United States. Conflicted by the need to preserve a needed relationship with Washington while wanting to maximize the benefit of Snowden's presence, Putin did his best impression of a protector of human rights. Snowden and Wikileaks' Julian Assange, Putin said, consider themselves "human rights activist ... fighting for the spread information."

"Ask yourself," he said, affecting the pose of a defender of oppressed activists, "should you hand these people over so they will be put in prison?" The implied answer was of course not. How could Putin possibly help send a human rights activist to prison?!

The Kremlin's media apparatus, in what is undoubtedly an effort to give America a black eye and take away Washington's power to criticize Russia's abuses, launched a campaign to put Snowden on a pedestal with programs that tore apart the United States, while glorifying the former NSA contractor who drew the curtain on U.S. government surveillance.

After that carefully crafted media operation, America's voice in the Navalny case lost its edge. After the verdict, the U.S. ambassador wrote a tweet decrying the "apparent political motivations in this trial." But Russian democrats and human rights activists have a weaker supporter in America now.

Snowden's days in Hong Kong brought a similar reaction from China. That was particularly ironic, considering that no country on Earth has a more elaborate machine to monitor and manipulate what its citizens do online than does China, where the Communist Party also has complete control of the political system.

China Daily, the government mouthpiece, gloated "This is not the first time that U.S. government agencies' wrongdoing have aroused widespread public concern." This, from a state that, in the words of Human Rights Watch, "imposes sharp curbs on freedom of expression, association ... openly rejects judicial independence and press freedom; arbitrarily restricts and suppresses human rights defenders..."

Even if you agree with Snowden that the NSA spying is going too far, as I do, it's hard to argue with the negative impact Snowden's revelations have had on human rights activists in other countries. Today, dictators and authoritarian rulers are basking in a viscous moral relativism, feeling their abuses are somehow justified by criticism of America's spying.

There are, however, many meaningful differences between America's surveillance excesses and those of Russia, China and their ilk. The most important of all is that Russia and China's behavior is motivated by a desire to suppress internal dissent, to protect the people and the organizations in power.

Nobody believes that is Washington's motivation. The United States may have gone too far, or far adrift, in pursuit of national security, but its spying machine is not built to destroy domestic opposition to the government.

When people say, "the Americans are just as bad," they are not only clearly wrong, they are also hurting the cause of political and personal freedom around the globe.

Snowden's revelations are a legitimate subject for discussion and criticism. But advocates of Internet privacy, free expression and human rights should not allow abusive authoritarian regimes to use American actions as a cover for their egregious misdeeds.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT