10th Dec 2023

'Dark times' in Russia, as disabled dissident sent to die in jail

  • Vladimir Kara-Murza at memorial to murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in February last year, shortly before his arrest (Photo: Michał Siergiejevicz)
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When he was poisoned eight years ago, Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza had a stroke, lost all feeling in his feet, and 17kg in weight.

"His wife came up with the idea of walking barefoot on sharp shells on the beach, so that the pain would get his nerves working again, and they did this over and over and over," his friend and British human-rights campaigner Bill Browder told EUobserver.

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"It took a year of rehab for him to learn to walk again," Browder recalled, referring to Russia's first attempt to destroy one of the regime's loudest critics.

But on Monday (17 April), neither Kara-Murza's wife, Evgeniya, or his foreign friends could do anything to help as Russia jailed the still-disabled 41-year old and father-of-three for 25 years, finding him guilty of "treason", among other charges.

His British passport (he is a dual national) did not help him either.

"I am infinitely proud of you, dear, and I am always there," Evgeniya Kara-Murza tweeted after the verdict.

"Russia will be free," Kara-Murza said.

"When he heard he'd got 25 years, he said: 'My self-esteem has gone up. I understand that I did everything right. It's the highest score I could have got for what I did'," Kara-Murza's lawyer, Maria Eismont, told press.

"Vladimir is a dear acquaintance and an indefatigable fighter and I believe he'll be freed much sooner because the regime is becoming more fragile and won't last 25 years," Vladimir Ashurkov, a Russian dissident in London, told this website.

The EU, the US, and the UN published statements calling for Kara-Murza's release.

The US and British ambassadors in Moscow, speaking outside the court after being barred entry, did the same.

But others felt pessimistic about Kara-Murza's chances of surviving the "strict-regime correctional colony" where he is to go.

"The prison conditions will slowly kill him," Browder said.

The "only hope" of saving Kara-Murza's life was if the West orchestrated a prisoner-exchange deal, Lithuanian MEP and Kara-Murza family friend Petras Austrevicius, also said.

"He's in weak health and his sentence is physical punishment, very KGB-style — they push you to the end, no mercy," Austrevicius added, referring to Russia's main intelligence service, now called FSB, for which Russian president Vladimir Putin used to work.

For its part, Latvia blacklisted 10 Russians involved in the show trial, including the judge.

"I call on the EU to impose sanctions as well," Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkēvičs said on Monday.

But even if the EU were to list all 28 Russians linked to the case, as Austrevicius and many other MEPs have called for, campaigners fear it would do little to stop Putin's direction of travel — towards Stalinist-era terror.

"Russia is entering very dark times," Austrevicius said.

Kara-Murza was arrested hours after he insulted Putin on US broadcaster CNN last April by saying he led a "regime of murderers".

His trial took place behind closed doors and the judge took just a few minutes to decide his fate.

His sentence was longer than anybody else's, but he joins some 540 political prisoners in Putin's dungeons, including Alexei Navalny, whose health is also failing.

Toxic regime

"Last week, he [Navalny] had such severe stomach pain they had to call an ambulance to his prison on the night of Friday/Saturday", Ashurkov, who works with Navalny, said.

"We suspect he's been poisoned, again," Ashurkov added.

Others have been sentenced for up to 15 years for trivial things, such as anti-war social media posts.

And some 20,000 people have been detained for anti-war protests in the past 12 months, according to OVD-Info, one of the few NGOs not-yet dismantled in Russia.

Kara-Murza began his career working for Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead on the Kremlin's doorstep in 2015, when Putin's new wave of terror began.

Jailings aside, Russia has been accused of using military-grade nerve toxins to poison Kara-Murza first in 2015 then in 2017.

It was accused of doing the same to Navalny in 2020.

For his part, Ashurkov escaped a similar risk in 2014 when he fled to London after noticing he was under surveillance in Russia.

But Putin's vendettas have also crossed borders, with poisonings and shootings in the UK and Germany in the past five years.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another exiled Putin critic in London, is being guarded by Britain's MI5 domestic intelligence agency, his associates said.

And when asked if he felt safe in Britain, Ashurkov said: "Russian services can assassinate people in any part of the world".

"Nobody is perfectly safe. But you just have to go about your daily business and try not to think about it too much, otherwise you can't lead a normal life," he said.

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