As you read this, one of the bravest people I know is in a Russian jail cell, facing a 25-year sentence. Vladimir Kara-Murza was arrested in April 2022 after returning to Russia to campaign against Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
The Kremlin dismisses the opposition as an irrelevant and unpopular bunch of foreign stooges. Yet it belies that claim by persecuting them assiduously. Already more than 500 Russians have been sentenced for anti-war activities. Many more, like Kara-Murza, are in detention.
The indictment claims that Kara-Murza’s public criticism of the regime is treasonous. “This is our enemy who must be punished,” said a prosecutor, Boris Loktionov. Kara-Murza (who pleaded not guilty) is indeed one of the Kremlin’s foremost critics. Formidably well-connected (he was a pallbearer at Senator John McCain’s funeral), he was a leading Russian voice in an international campaign to punish individuals personally responsible for state repression. These sanctions, spearheaded by the former Moscow-based financier Bill Browder, are named after Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blower who died in prison in 2009 after exposing a $230m official tax fraud. The judge in Kara-Murza’s case, Sergei Podoprigorov, is himself subject to these sanctions for his role in sentencing Magnitsky.
Kara-Murza had made a complete recovery from the two near-fatal poisonings he suffered in 2015 and 2017. But a year in detention, including a spell in solitary confinement, has harmed his health. His wife Evgenia tells me his symptoms have returned. Numbness is spreading in his feet and his left hand. He has lost 40 lbs (17kg). Russian law precludes the detention of people with Karamurza’s condition, polyneuropathy. But these and other safeguards are routinely ignored. The trial is being held in private, with no outside observers.
Other victims of arbitrary arrest in Russia have been in the headlines recently, notably the Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich, who was charged with espionage. Kara-Murza’s supporters do not begrudge Gershkovich the international outrage that his case attracts. It helps highlight the Putin regime’s lawlessness and contempt for media freedom. Nor will they object if he is swapped for a real spy in Western custody.
But Kara-Murza’s case needs more attention. The United States has already imposed sanctions on the deputy justice minister, Oleg Sviridenko, on Diana Mishchenko, the judge who ruled that Kara-Murza be arrested, and on Ilya Kozlov, who denied Kara-Murza’s appeal against his arrest. Scores of European Parliament members have written an open letter to the Commission demanding sanctions.
But what about Britain? Kara-Murza was educated here and holds dual British-Russian nationality. Evgenia Kara-Murza says she is “honestly baffled by how little the UK government is doing under the circumstances.” The State Department is a lot more helpful (she and her three children are US citizens; her husband holds permanent US residency).
She is not aware of any behind-the-scenes efforts being made by the authorities in London. This sense of official apathy chimes with a dismal episode at a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in the House of Commons last month, when the hard-hitting Alicia Kearns MP, who chairs the committee, asked witnesses from the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) what steps they were taking to support Kara-Murza. David Rutley MP, a junior government minister, replied only that he was “not familiar with the case”. A senior official then appeared to argue that public involvement would be counter-productive. When I asked, the FCDO declined to comment further.
Russian officials rarely visit London these days. But they still hate being singled out for visa bans and asset freezes. Britain should not wait for this show trial to reach its farcical conclusion. It should impose sanctions now.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.