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“And there will be a dawn, too. The night, as we know, is darkest just before the sunrise.” The case of Vladimir Kara-Murza 

Jun 10 2022

Vladimir Kara-Murza has been illegally removed from political office, poisoned twice, and declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian state.  Despite all of these dire threats, he’s remained in Russia and continued to fight for democracy. On April 22, Kara-Murza was charged under Criminal Code Article 207.3 for spreading discrediting information about the Russian military and sent to prison. This is his story.

Who is Vladimir Kara-Murza?

Vladimir Kara-Murza, 40, is a prominent Russian activist, political opposition leader, senior advisor for human rights accountability, journalist, and historian. He served as a member of the Federal Council of the Political Party Union of Right Forces, a member of the Political Council of the All-Russian Democratic Movement “Solidarnost,” a member of the Bureau of the Political Party People’s Freedom Party, and Chairman of the Board of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom. Kara-Murza is a longtime vocal critic of the Kremlin who held leadership roles in Open Russia and Free Russia Foundation, organizations that the Russian government has deemed “undesirable.” Kara-Murza also hosted a weekly program on the since-shuttered Echo of Moscow radio station and writes columns for The Washington Post.

Kara-Murza has directed three documentary films: They Chose Freedom, Nemtsov, and My Duty to Not Stay Silent. He is also the author of Reform or Revolution: The Quest for Responsible Government in the First Russian State Duma. He has received several awards, including the Sakharov Prize for Journalism as an Act of Conscience, the Magnitsky Human Rights Award, and the Geneva Summit Courage Award. He holds an M.A. (Cantab.) in History from Cambridge.

The effectiveness of Kara-Murza’s work can be clearly seen in his advocacy for the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act. This crucial document, adopted in the United States in 2012, allows for the imposition of sanctions on those responsible for “extrajudicial killings and other gross human rights violations.” It now includes those who, according to the U.S., were involved in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had uncovered a scheme to steal 5.4 billion rubles.

Kara-Murza was poisoned twice. In 2015, Kara-Murza suddenly felt unwell during a meeting with colleagues. Doctors diagnosed him with acute kidney failure due to poisoning. During an extended period of hospitalization, he was in an induced coma and on life support. Two years later, in February 2017, Kara-Murza was again hospitalized in a critical condition to a Moscow hospital with the same symptoms. Kara-Murza survived. As he later recounted, doctors estimated his chance of survival at about 5 percent.

After Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, Kara-Murza said in an interview that the symptoms described by Navalny were “exactly the same as the symptoms” that he himself experienced in both poisonings. An investigative effort published on February 11, 2021 by Bellingcat and The Insider teams discovered that FSB officers shadowed Kara-Murza on his travel. Their report found that a group of FSB officers implicated in the poisoning of politician Alexei Navalny and other prominent opposition leaders, made two attempts to poison Kara-Murza in 2015 and 2017.

He has pushed for a criminal investigation of his poisoning, but proceedings have not yet progressed.

It is believed that the two poisonings of Kara-Murza were revenge for the fact that he and Boris Nemtsov advocated in the U.S. (and later Canada and the European Union) to pass the Magnitsky Act.As a result of their work, sanctions were imposed throughout the Russian bureaucracy: on employees of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Investigative Committee of Russia (IC), and judges. Later, the sanctions list was expanded to include the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov; Andrei Lugovoi, a deputy who is suspected of poisoning Alexander Litvinenko in London; and other Russian politicians and officials.

Case Background

On April 11, 2022, Vladimir Kara-Murza was detained in the courtyard of his home in Moscow. According to the police report, he “disobeyed the lawful demand” of police officers. After his arrest, Kara-Murza was held overnight at the Khamovniki police station, where a report was drawn up under Article 19.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences of the Russian Federation (“disobedience to legal demands of police officers”). The police officers stated that they had put him under a “Fortress” plan while he was in the police station, and that his lawyer was not allowed to see him on that basis.

The police claim that they were on patrol and noticed that Vladimir Kara-Murza “at the sight of police officers behaved inadequately, changed the trajectory of movement, accelerated his step and on their demand to stop tried to escape.” They claim that ”when arrested he showed active resistance, refused to provide identity documents and to follow into the police vehicle.”

Kara-Murza claims that he arrived at his house by car, where an unmarked white minibus was already waiting for him. The officers of the 2nd Special Police Regiment ran up to the car and detained Vladimir Kara-Murza as he parked near his house. His phone was taken away from him immediately, in violation of the law, and he was not allowed to call his wife and inform her about his arrest until several hours later. He was then taken to the police station in a white van.

According to Kara-Murza, his arrest was filmed by two persons in civilian clothes.  

The Arrest and the Criminal Proceedings

On April 12, 2022, the Khamovniki District Court of Moscow found Kara-Murza guilty of disobedience to the lawful demands of the police and sentenced him to administrative arrest for 15 days.

On April 22, 2022, Vadim Prokhorov, Kara-Murza’s lawyer, announced that his client was facing charges under Art. 207.3 of the Criminal Code (“public dissemination of knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”) and had already been taken from the special reception center to the main investigation department of the Russian Investigative Committee. Later, the Basmanny District Court of Moscow specified that the investigation petitioned for a measure of restraint in the form of detention, and that Kara-Murza was charged with paragraph “e” of Part 2, 207.3 of the Criminal Code (“public dissemination of deliberately false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation for reasons of political hatred”).

According to Prokhorov, the basis for the criminal case against Kara-Murza was his March 15, 2022 address before the House of Representatives of the State of Arizona. Neither Kara-Murza’slawyers nor the defendant himself can explain why, out of a series of his public speeches in the United States, the IC has chosen to prosecute that particular one.

According to the ruling on the initiation of criminal proceedings, Kara-Murza “has knowingly spread false information under the guise of reliable reports, containing data on the use of the Russian Armed Forces to bomb residential areas, social infrastructure facilities, including maternity homes, hospitals and schools, as well as the use of other prohibited means and methods of warfare during a special military operation in Ukraine, thus causing substantial harm to the interests of the Russian Federation.”

The content of Kara-Murza’s March 15 speech is not much different from the Anti-War Committee’s first declarations`. It is, in fact, a brief critical analysis of the 23-year development of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The Basmanny Court emphasized the following statement made by Kara-Murza: “[…] today, the whole world sees what Putin’s regime is doing to Ukraine. It is dropping bombs on residential areas, on hospitals and schools […]. These are war crimes that were initiated by the dictatorial regime in the Kremlin.” Independent resources pointed out that the translation of the speech was not made by a professional interpreter, but by Danila Mikheev, who had done research as an expert on behalf of the IC in a number of other cases against opposition figures.

On the same day, April 22, the Basmanny District Court of Moscow remanded Kara-Murza in custody until June 12, 2022.The arrest has been now extended through August 2022. 

The investigators justified the request for Kara-Murza’s placement in custody by the fact that he has “informal ties” with the leaders of “unfriendly” countries, cooperates with “undesirable” organizations such as Free Russia Foundation, and has accounts in foreign banks. The investigators argued that if a more lenient preventive measure were chosen, Kara-Murza might obstruct the investigation. They also claim that Kara-Murza is a British citizen,is the owner of real estate in Washington, DC, and has a residence permit in the US, so he may abscond.

The defense argued that there was no evidence pointing to the elements of a crime and that there were no other legitimate grounds for imposing detention on Kara-Murza. The lawyers drew the court’s attention to the fact that the politician had children, including minors, and was permanently registered in Moscow. They explained that there was no evidence that Kara-Murza had real estate in Washington, accounts in foreign banks, or had worked for an undesirable organization. They also argued that the report substantiating the criminal nature of Kara-Murza’s speech had been prepared by a biased specialist.

The defense drew the court’s attention to the un-investigated poisonings of Kara-Murza in 2015 and 2017, the consequences of which would pose health risks for the politician in the detention center.

The defense counsel insisted on the political nature of the case and asked the court to refuse to put the politician in custody. The court was also presented with guarantees from deputies of the Moscow City Duma: Mikhail Timonov, Maxim Kruglov and Vladimir Ryzhkov.

Despite all arguments of the defense, the court agreed with the arguments of the investigation and put Vladimir Kara-Murza in custody until June 12, 2022.

The International Reaction

The arrest of Vladimir Kara-Murza provoked a flood of statements from politicians and human rights organizations around the world, as well as a barrage of comments on social media. The hashtag #FreeKaraMurza was used to tweet messages of support and demand a fair trial and the immediate release of the politician.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted the U.S. is “troubled” by Kara-Murza’s detention. He called for his immediate release.

In a statement, The Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan said Kara-Murza has “repeatedly risked his safety to tell the truth about Vladimir Putin’s heinous violations of human rights” and said the charges against him were for a “sham offense.” He added, “Americans should be infuriated by Putin’s escalating campaign to silence Kara-Murza. […] And everyone who values press freedom and human rights should be enraged by this injustice and join in demanding Kara-Murza’s immediate release.”

Twenty-five international human rights organizations called on UN Secretary General António Guterres and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to condemn the arrest and detention of Russian opposition politician and demand his immediate release along with all others detained and arrested for protesting against the war in Ukraine. A statement from human rights activists, including representatives from major organizations such as the United Nations Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Foundation, declared that “[t]he accusations against Kara-Murza are false and aimed only at silencing dissent within Russia. They reflect the Putin regime’s fear of the truth.”

A number of leading advocates have condemned Kara-Murza’simprisonment. Among them is Michael Breen, President and CEO of Human Rights First: “We are deeply concerned for our friend Vladimir Kara-Murza’s personal safety, and we call on Russian authorities to release him immediately […]. Putin and his regime have shown themselves to be willing to break any law, domestic or international, to suppress political opposition at home and subjugate neighboring countries like Ukraine. We call on all of democracy’s allies to oppose criminal behavior like this to protect human rights in Russia, Ukraine, and around the world.”

A joint statement by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin and co-chairman Rep. Steve Cohen, as well as ranking members Sen. Roger Wicker and Rep. Joe Wilson reads, ”Vladimir is not a criminal but a true patriot motivated by the potential of a democratic future for Russia and freedom for its people. He must be allowed access to his lawyer and should be released immediately.”

In a separate statement, Steve Cohen wrote that “Vladimir Kara-Murza is a political prisoner of Putin. He must be released immediately. Putin is afraid of Vladimir because he has a voice and speaks the truth to the Russian people about the kleptocrats who commit financial crime and their leader who is a murderer.”

“Vladimir has been taken hostage by the Putin regime for criticising the war. He’s a British citizen and the U.K. government should use all means to get him released,” writes Bill Browder, CEO Hermitage Capital, Head of Global Magnitsky Justice campaign.

On May 26, 2022, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and colleagues applauded the Senate’s passage of their bipartisan resolution honoring Vladimir Kara-Murza and condemning his unjust detention. The resolution pays tribute to Kara-Murza’sadvocacy for human rights in Russia and support for the anti-war movement. It urges the U.S. and allied states to secure his immediate release and calls for the U.S. government to support the cause of democracy and human rights in Russia.

After Kara-Murza’s arrest, his wife Yvgenia Kara-Murza led a campaign for his release. She regularly gives interviews to the press and meets with politicians on both sides of the Atlantic to encourage the speedy release of her husband, describing her husband’s long history of resistance to Putin’s regime. On May 232022, she gave a speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum. She quoted her husband: “The other day a fellow prisoner asked if I wish I’d stayed silent [on the war]. ‘No’ was the easiest answer I’ve ever given. To stay silent means to be complicit.”

A large number of international media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Guardian, and National Review have published materials about and interviews with Kara-Murza. In addition, dozens of international politicians, U.S. senators, and even hundreds of ordinary people published posts on social networks with words of support and demands for the immediate release of Kara-Murza.

Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Vladimir Kara-Murza as a Political Prisoner?

After studying the documents of the case, the Memorial Human Rights Center (Memorial) came to the conclusion that Vladimir Kara-Murza is a victim of political persecution as a result of his political activism.

A week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, on March 4, 2022, the Russian State Duma adopted emergency legislation to amend both the Code of Administrative Offences and the Criminal Code.

The corpus delicti of the crime under the new Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code is formulated as follows: “Public dissemination under the guise of reliable reports of knowingly false information containing data on the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation to protect the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens, to maintain international peace and security, as well as containing data on the performance by state bodies of the Russian Federation of their powers outside the territory of the Russian Federation for the above purposes.”

Memorial believes that this article contradicts both the Russian Constitution, the international obligations of the Russian Federation, and the basic principles of law.

According to Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference [… and] shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Restrictions on the exercise of these rights “shall be established by law and be necessary: for respect of the rights and reputations of others; for the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals.”

Similar guarantees are contained in Article 29 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which protects freedom of thought and speech. Restrictions on these freedoms are related to the prohibition of propaganda or agitation that incites social, racial, national or religious hatred and enmity; propaganda of social, racial, national, religious or linguistic superiority; and state secrets.

The restrictions on freedom of expression set forth in Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code clearly do not serve the purpose for which such restrictions might be imposed.

In fact, the norms of Article 207.3 allow prosecution for expressing any opinions about the use of the Russian Armed Forces and the activities of its state bodies abroad. Judgments as to whether or not the actions mentioned in the article have the goals of “protecting the interests of the Russian Federation and its citizens and maintaining international peace and security” are, by their very nature, evaluative expressions of opinion.

But even with regard to information itself, for example, statements of fact under conditions of military operations or contradictory information from various sources, it is extremely difficult to judge veracity. Moreover, it is impossible to establish the knowingness, i.e. the intent to disseminate false information.

The aforementioned organic defects of Article 207.3 of the Criminal Code determine its non-legal nature, which does not allow its application in good faith.

Based on available evidence, the Independent Human Rights Project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” believes that Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code is anti-legal, was created to carry out political repression against critics of the authorities, and must be abolished. Any prosecutions under this article are unlawful and must be stopped. 

The facts cited by Kara-Murza and his defense and the videofootage of his detention indicate falsification of evidence of an administrative offense under Article 19.3 of the CAO. Kara-Murza arrived at the house in a car, where police officers were already waiting for him. The story about the police patrol noticing Kara-Murza changing his trajectory was fabricated by law enforcement. These fabrications once again confirm his pre-planned political persecution, which began with imprisonment on an administrative charge. 

The speed with which this criminal case has developed is an indirect indication of the political motivations involved in Kara-Murza’s persecution.

Following Russia’s attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Kara-Murza, along with other politicians and public figures, created the Russian Anti-War Committee. One of the committee’s primary objects is to hold Russia’s political leadership accountable for unleashing the war.

The political motive for the prosecution is additionally confirmed by the inclusion of Kara-Murza on the list of “foreign agents.”The Russian Ministry of Justice did so on the same day that hewas arrested. 

The independent human rights project “Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial” continues the work of the Thematic Program of the RC, which had been liquidated by the state.Memorial, according to the international guidance on the definition of a political prisoner, finds that the criminal case against Vladimir Kara-Murza is politically motivated, aimed at involuntary termination or change of character of his public activities and intimidation of society as a whole. The consolidation and retention of power by subjects of authority wascarried out exclusively because of Kara-Murza’s non-violent activities aimed at protecting human rights and his convictions in connection with the non-violent exercise of freedom of expression and information.

Based on the above, Memorial considers Vladimir Kara-Murza to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.

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