Vladimir Kara-Murza: Poisoned dissident who knows Putin is ‘afraid’

Elite Russian security officer says Putin’s offices are set up identically

Vladimir Kara-Murza, the opposition activist, has been sentenced to 25 years in prison for treason and other charges related to his criticism of the Ukraine war. He has denied the charges and stuck to his words, telling a Moscow court last week: “I subscribe to every word that I have said […] Not only do I not repent any of this, I am proud of it.” Mr Kara-Murza has not only openly spoken against President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine but also the general crackdown on dissent and free speech in Russia.

The Russian-British former journalist has a long history with Putin, having been involved in politics for more than 20 years, sitting in opposition to the president since 2000.

During this time he has experienced various underhand moves from Putin’s ruling United Russia party, including in 2003 when he stood for election to the State Duma but had the lighting removed from his election billboards, the sound from his televised debates turned off, and reports of carousel voting waged against him.

From this point on Mr Kara-Murza became involved in and founded various opposition political groups and movements, like the Committee 2008 in 2004 and Solidarnost in 2008.

In 2014, he went one step further by becoming part of the Open Russia Foundation, a group whose goal it is to promote things like democracy and free civil society in Russia while opposing and revoking Putin’s grip on power.

It has been through all of these groups that Mr Kara-Murza told the Independent in 2017 that he has discovered Putin and his inner circle’s real fear.

Speaking to Tom Peck, his former university friend, he talked of his day-to-day work and how it wasn’t the details which scared Putin but the potential consequences: “I help organise rallies and go round the country but they’re not really afraid of that, the regime. What they are afraid of is getting on that sanctions list.”

He continued: “The nature of this regime is similar to what we had in Soviet times. We have media censorship, the lack of free and fair elections, we have political prisoners, dozens of them, so it is similar, but in one very important way it is different. And that is that although members of the Soviet politburo were putting dissidents in jail and engaging in anti-Western propaganda, they did not keep their money in Western banks.

“They did not send their kids to study in British schools. They didn’t buy real estate and yachts and luxury cars in Western countries. These guys do.

“They want to rule inside Russia, like it’s a Third World dictatorship, but they want to use the opportunities of Western democracies for themselves. We think that hypocrisy and that double standard has to stop.”

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While valiant, his efforts have at times put his life at risk. On May 26, 2015, Mr Kara-Murza’s health deteriorated rapidly at a meeting in Moscow and he was quickly taken to a nearby hospital.

He had been eating lunch at a restaurant and had then had a two-hour meeting, during which he later reported he had felt completely normal before suddenly vomiting.

It was initially thought that the illness had been brought on by heart problems, but scans showed his cardiac health was fine.

While there has never been any conclusive evidence, his symptoms suggest he was been poisoned. After his release from the hospital, he said it was difficult to “believe this was an accident” and that he suspected he had been intentionally poisoned. However, he noted there was no way to be certain.

His father, the late journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza Sr, told the BBC that “if someone did want to frighten us, then they succeeded.”

Barely two years would pass before a similar incident took place. On February 2, 2017, Mr Kara-Murza was hospitalised again after he began to experience the same symptoms as in 2015.

Treated at the same hospitals by the same doctors, they put him in a medically-induced coma and hooked him up to a life support machine. The hospital, his lawyer said, diagnosed Mr Kara-Murza as having suffered from a “toxic influence of an unknown substance”. He was released on February 19 and travelled abroad to recover.

In what was seen as a world first, the US’ FBI were provided with blood samples of Mr Kara-Murza, which were used as part of an investigation to determine the cause of his illness.

By this time, Mr Kara-Murza had a strong relationship with the US, having worked in the country as a journalist and helped pass through the Magnitsky Act in 2012, a bill which intended to punish Russian officials for the murder of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and to grant permanent normal trade relations status to Russia. His work and cooperation with Washington on such policies is largely seen as having irked Putin, the Russian President feeling threatened and undermined.

For unclear reasons, the FBI has never revealed the details of their investigation into the substance that resulted in his illness. According to RFERL, one US Senator suggested that the results may contain “classified” information.

In February 2021, after a joint investigation by Bellingcat, The Insider, and Der Spiegel, it was suggested that the same FSB unit that allegedly poisoned Alexei Navalny had been involved in the poisoning of Mr Kara-Murza.

It would only be a year before Mr Kara-Murza was arrested on charges of disobeying police orders on April 11, 2022.

He faced 15 days in jail or a small fine, and came hours after he had referred to Putin’s government as “a regime or murderers”.

Then, on April 22, Mr Kara-Murza was charged by a Russian court for spreading “false” information about the Russian military, the reason given due to a speech he gave on March 15 to the Arizona House of Representatives in which he denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and said the military was targeting residential areas with cluster bombs and was “bombing maternity hospitals and schools”.

New charges came in July of that year after he was accused of cooperating with an “undesirable” foreign NGO — adding six years to any later prison sentence. Then, in October 2022, he was charged with treason, something that would eventually get him a 20-year sentence.

Last week, a copy of a speech he made to the closed Moscow court was released in which he described his trial as reminding him of a Stalin-era show trial of the Thirties.

He said: “I only blame myself for one thing. I failed to convince enough of my compatriots and politicians in democratic countries of the danger that the current Kremlin regime poses for Russia and for the world.”

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