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Persecuted, poisoned and condemned: Kara-Murza, the paradigm of the Russian opposition

Almost exactly one year after his arrest, on April 17th, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. »No one should be deprived of their freedom to exercise their human rights, so I call on the Russian authorities to release the journalist without delay,» said United Nations Human Rights Chief Volker Türk.
By Ignacio E. Hutin

Twice they tried to poison him. Both times in the same way: he was in Moscow; he began to feel bad, his muscles did not respond, he could not breathe. Within hours, his organs began to fail. He was hospitalized and managed to survive both times, who knows how. The first time was on May 26, 2015, almost three months after his friend and colleague Boris Nemtsov was shot dead just steps from the Kremlin, the seat of the Russian executive branch. In one of the most guarded places on the planet, no one saw anything then. And no one saw anything when Vladimir Kara-Murza was poisoned twice. Nobody saw, nobody investigated. But the political activist not only survived, but also he decided to remain in his native Moscow and continue working for a more democratic country. Until one day, shortly after the invasion to Ukraine was launched, he suffered what any opposition political figure in Russia who is not assassinated suffers: he was arrested.

Kara-Murza is 41 years old today and has just been sentenced to a quarter of a century in prison for spreading "disinformation" about the Russian army, for collaborating with an "undesirable" organization and for "high treason". This is the maximum sentence stipulated for the crimes of which he was accused. Two weeks earlier, in front of the court in the Russian capital, he had refused to express "remorse for his misdeeds" or to plead for the judges’ mercy. And the judges did not find it relevant that the activist suffered from polyneuropathy in both feet, developed as a consequence of the 2015 and 2017 poisonings. He could consider himself lucky to have survived.

From the age of 16, Kara-Murza worked as a journalist for various Russian and foreign media, especially as a correspondent in London and Washington. He was less than 20 years old when he joined the Democratic Election of Russia (DVR) party, which soon merged with the Union of Right Forces (SPS). It was the first years of the new century, Vladimir Putin had just assumed the presidency of the Russian Federation and Kara-Murza began to appear in the public eye as an adviser to Boris Nemtsov, former governor of Nizhny Novgorod and then a member of the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament. He then participated in the 2003 legislative elections, in which the opposition denounced fraud, and, in 2008, he campaigned for the presidential candidacy of writer and human rights activist Vladimir Bukovsky. “Russia needs its own Vaclav Havel, not a new successor of the KGB,” Kara-Murza said then. But the Central Election Commission rejected the candidacy.

When, at the end of that same 2008, the Russian opposition led by Nemtsov and the chess player Garry Kasparov founded Solidarity, in reference to the Polish movement of the same name, Kara-Murza became a member of its federal council. It was from this role that he participated in the largest protests in Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the 2011 legislative elections, United Russia, the party headed by then Prime Minister Putin, officially won with almost 50% of the votes, but organizations like the OSCE and the EU claimed fraud. There came to be more than 160 thousand people protesting in Moscow. But these demonstrations made it clear that Putin was not planning to show weakness, even less with just a year to go before the elections that would return him to head the country. In any case, the protests represented an important moment in which the Russian opposition began to rethink its strategy.

Kara-Murza joined the refounded People's Freedom Party, which had been dissolved by order of the Russian Supreme Court in 2007; he was part of the Coordination Council of the Russian Opposition, in which he worked with, among others, Alexei Navalny, the lawyer who was poisoned in 2020 and detained in 2021; the New York-based NGO Institute of Modern Russia; and he was also coordinator of Open Russia, an organization founded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once the richest man in Russia until he was arrested in 2003 accused of fraud and sentenced to 9 years in prison in a trial that, according to Amnesty International, was marked by “serious procedural violations” and it was a “deeply flawed and politically motivated” process. Since he was released, Khodorkovsky has left the country and currently lives in London.

In 2012, the US Congress passed the so-called Magnitsky Act, named after Sergei Magnitsky. This Russian lawyer and auditor investigated a $230 million fraud involving Russian tax officials. In response, he was accused of committing fraud and detained, spent eleven months in jail without a sentence, suffered mistreatment and died in 2009 from beatings and torture by Russian Interior Ministry officials. The law in his honor provided for the impossibility of obtaining a US visa and freezing of assets in the United States for those responsible for "extrajudicial executions, torture or other serious violations of internationally recognized human rights" in Russia.

Foto Twitter "UK Campaign to Free Vladimir Kara-Murza" / @FreeVladimirKM
Foto Twitter "UK Campaign to Free Vladimir Kara-Murza" / @FreeVladimirKM

At the time, Kara-Murza was spending much of his time in the United States and he strongly supported the bill. As a result, he was fired from the RTVI television network, where he served as head of its Washington’s office, and was banned from the Russian embassy.

Then Boris Nemtsov was assassinated on February 27, 2015. He was one more in the long list of public figures opposed to the Kremlin who were assassinated in just two decades. Among them is Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who investigated Russian actions during the war in Chechnya and who was killed in 2006. That same year, Alexander Litvinenko, a former agent of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), who accused the government of carrying out attacks on residential buildings in September 1999 to blame Chechen groups and justify the war, was killed. He had lived in London since 2000 and a few months before being poisoned with polonium, he had blamed Putin for murdering Politkovskaya. The journalist's lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, was assassinated in 2009, and Anastasia Baburova, a journalist for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, was also killed in the same attack. Natalia Estemirova, a human rights activist and board member of the NGO Memorial, was kidnapped and murdered in 2009 in Grozny, Chechnya, where she was investigating government abuses.

The poisonings of Kara-Murza were part of this succession of coincidences: all Putin's opponents were killed in events without culprits, without witnesses, without evidence, without anyone being aware of anything. All the dead people knew each other, they all had some kind of contact and Kara-Murza was no exception: for almost 15 years he had been one of the most visible faces of the opposition to Putin, in Russia, in the European Union and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. He had been part of almost all the networks, of almost all the political movements, he had worked with all the opponents, with the dead ones, with the exile ones, with the poisoned ones, with the ones who survived. He had worked with everyone. In this way, he managed to establish himself as one of the most important and most paradigmatic representatives of the Russian opposition.

And then, on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. And Kara-Murza was openly critical, as he had been alongside Nemtsov in 2014, when separatist groups in eastern Ukraine declared independence with financial and logistical support from Moscow. Barely two weeks after the start of the invasion, the journalist and political activist spoke before the Arizona House of Representatives denouncing the actions of the Russian government. He was arrested in April on charges of having “knowingly spread false information about the Russian Armed Forces” during that speech; but he was also accused of "high treason", for his "cooperation with a NATO country" as a result of his public expositions in Lisbon, Helsinki and Washington; and of "carrying out activities of an undesirable organization", for his work in Open Russia.

Almost exactly one year after his arrest, on April 17th, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. "No one should be deprived of their freedom to exercise their human rights, so I call on the Russian authorities to release the journalist without delay," said United Nations Human Rights Chief Volker Türk. “It is another shocking example of the systematic repression of civil society, which the Kremlin government has expanded and accelerated since Russia invaded Ukraine last year. The so-called ‘crimes’ for which Vladimir Kara-Murza was tried are, in fact, acts of remarkable bravery,” said Natalia Zviagina, Director of Amnesty International Russia.

That's probably the more appropriate word: bravery. Because Kara-Murza knows that he is part of a long list of people that the Kremlin considers “undesirable”. He knows that his work bothers and that Putin would prefer that the journalist, like many of those who have accompanied him in recent decades, did not exist. For now, Moscow’s leader is content to see his critics behind bars, but given the past evidence, that may not be enough for him soon. And neither Russia nor the three sons of Kara-Murza need a new martyr.

Ignacio E. Hutin
Ignacio E. Hutin
Advisory Councelor
Master in International Relations (University of Salvador, 2021), Graduate in Journalism (University of Salvador, 2014), specialized in Leadership in Humanitarian Emergencies (National Defense University, 2019) and studied photography (ARGRA, 2009). He is a focused in Eastern Europe, post-Soviet Eurasia and the Balkans. He received a scholarship from the Finnish State to carry out studies related to the Arctic at the University of Lapland (2012). He is the author of the books Saturn (2009), Deconstruction: Chronicles and Reflections from Post-Communist Eastern Europe (2018), Ukraine/Donbass: A Renewed Cold War (2021), and Ukraine: Chronicle from the Frontlines (2021).

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