A critic of the Kremlin could be barred from obtaining Canadian citizenship because she has to prove to immigration officials here that it isn’t a crime in Canada to criticize the Russian army.
Maria Kartasheva, who has lived in Ottawa since 2019, has been convicted under a Russian law passed shortly after the invasion of Ukraine which bars “public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.”
Kartasheva says she was surprised Russian prosecutors pursued her over two blog posts she wrote while living in Ontario.
But what was most jawdropping for the 30-year-old was when a Canadian officiant motioned for her to step aside in the middle of her citizenship ceremony last spring, just moments before she was supposed to swear her allegiance to the Crown.
“I felt betrayed because I was hoping I was safe here in Canada,” said Kartasheva, who’s a tech worker in the national capital.
Under Canadian immigration rules, if an applicant is charged with a crime in another country that could be indictable under Canada’s Criminal Code, their application can be revoked or refused.
According to a December letter from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), the crime she committed in Russia “would equate to false information under subsection 372(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada.”
Originally enacted in 1985, the Canadian law makes it illegal for individuals to intentionally injure another person or convey false information through telecommunication means.
Historically, it’s been invoked to address cases such as a person spreading untrue rumours or evidence about a cheating spouse. It carries a maximum sentence of two years behind bars.
“Based on the information currently available to me, it appears that you may be subject to prohibitions under the Citizenship Act,” read the IRCC letter, which was signed by a citizenship officer in Montreal.
The official gave Kartasheva 30 days to explain her case.
Kartasheva said it’s bewildering that anyone would interpret her eight-year imprisonment sentence in Russia as having any moral or legal match here.
“This is a normal country,” she said of Canada. “(You would think) no one would consider me a criminal for being against the war — but I guess they would. For me, it just doesn’t make sense.”
Jacqueline Bonisteel, an Ottawa-based immigration lawyer, said the IRCC process is meant to filter out applicants who are ineligible due to their criminal past, but in this case she felt the principle was misapplied.
“It looks relatively straightforward that this isn’t a provision that has an equivalent in Canadian criminal law,” said Bonisteel, a lawyer with Corporate Immigration Law Firm.
Blog posts led to conviction
Kartasheva’s convictions stem from two blog entries from March 2022, when she posted photos and wrote in Russian expressing horror at the Bucha massacre.
“Tell me that before the Russian troops came there, all these people were alive, riding their own damn bicycles. I don’t know why it was so ingrained in my memory that there were bicycles everywhere, and the dead people who were riding them, apparently, they were going somewhere,” a translation of one of the posts reads.
Russia’s foreign minister has rejected allegations of atrocities in Bucha.
Kartasheva said her arrest in absentia was approved by Russian judge Elena Lenskaya, then tried in the Basmanny District Court of Moscow — both of which are still subject to Canadian sanctions for human rights violations.
She said her Russian lawyer wasn’t able to file a defence, and in November of this year she was sentenced to eight years in a Russian prison.
Kartasheva heard of the charges in late 2022 and learned of her arrest in April 2023. She was in the midst of applying through the regular citizenship stream in Canada, but decided to notify the IRCC of the foreign charges right away.
A few days later in May, she received an invitation to her citizenship ceremony, so she assumed the Canadian government had understood her situation. However, just as she was about to take the oath of citizenship, the officiant asked the room a routine question about whether anyone had criminal charges.
Kartasheva raised her hand, and she was told to step aside.
She never made her oath.
“I know Canada doesn’t support the war. I know that they agree Russia silences people who are against the war. I thought that this is such a clear situation that all of this just shouldn’t be happening,” Kartasheva said.
Kartasheva has participated in other activism against the war besides her blog, including protesting at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa and co-founding a group called the Russian Canadian Democratic Alliance.
“The worst-case scenario is that I will be deported back to Russia,” she said.
Matthew Light, an associate professor of criminology and European studies at the University of Toronto, said the Russian false information law has been covered in western media for its impact on high-profile opposition politicians and journalists.
“It’s also used on a much larger scale against less well-known members of Russian society who’ve uttered criticisms of the war, often in contexts that aren’t highly political,” Light said.
In those cases, the penalty may be a fine, but Light said Kartasheva’s eight-year sentence suggests the Russian government is taking her case seriously or could be part of a larger trend of trying to tighten its grip on Russians abroad.
“They seem to wish to make her a lesson for others. I assume they don’t expect that she will be returned to Russian custody, but they may well mean to intimidate others,” Light said.
Light said if Kartasheva does have to return to Russia, she could face additional prison sentences, harsher conditions as a political prisoner and continued surveillance upon her release.
“We can assume that as long as the Putin regime is in power, it would not be possible for (her) to have a normal life in Russia,” Light said.
“This is an appalling error, and I hope it is resolved in (her) favour promptly.”
Exemptions for political dissidents
Bonisteel said IRCC regularly bypasses the criminal equivalency requirement to help applicants flee political persecution in their home countries.
“This comes up often with refugee cases and political dissidents,” Bonisteel said.
“So long as they can establish this is a trumped up, politicized charge that has no equivalency in Canada, then they’re going to be able to get their status here.”
Bonisteel said she hasn’t seen this kind of issue come up in the regular citizenship stream. She said it’s part of the process for the onus to be on the applicant to explain the context of any legal issues, but IRCC could develop some policy that flags obvious cases.
In a statement to CBC News, IRCC said “foreign convictions are carefully examined to see whether the act committed would have been an offence under Canadians laws if it had occurred in Canada.”
It said people who are investigated for potential foreign criminal activity are given the chance to explain their situation.
The department said it will review the documents Kartasheva has sent to make her case to determine the outcome of her citizenship application.
The Russian Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to CBC’s inquiries.