Lisa Haseldine Lisa Haseldine

Time is ticking to save Vladimir Kara-Murza

Vladimir Kara-Murza (Credit: Getty images)

A year ago today, the Putin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza was jailed for 25 years – the longest sentence handed down to a political prisoner in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union over 30 years ago. For the last year, Kara-Murza has been held in a prison in Siberia, often in solitary confinement, with only occasional visits from his lawyer, a couple of books and hostile prison guards watching over him.

Kara-Murza was arrested in April 2022 and held for over a year in pre-trial detention after being accused of treason and spreading ‘fake information’ about the Russian army. The most alarming aspect of the charges levelled against him was that they related to speeches he gave abroad, including one to the Arizona House of Representatives the previous month when he condemned Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a ‘war of aggression’. 

Putin is a bully. He only recognises, and responds to, force and actions

He had been on the Kremlin’s radar for years thanks to his work in the US helping to implement the Magnitsky Act in 2012, which allowed for sanctions against individuals involved in corruption and human rights violations. The legislation has since been copied by countries around the world, including the UK. In an indication of just how Kafka-esque today’s Russia has become, the judge who sentenced Kara-Murza last year, Sergei Podoprigorov, was himself sanctioned in 2020 thanks to the Act.

The death of Alexei Navalny in February means that Kara-Murza now has the macabre honour of being Putin’s most high-profile political prisoner. What also sets Kara-Murza apart from other dissidents imprisoned in Russia is that he is a British citizen, having moved to London at the age of 11 in the early 90s.

At first glance, it might seem unlikely that Kara-Murza will serve the entirety of his sentence. Given that Putin is already 71, he will almost certainly not be president of Russia in 24 years’ time. But Kara-Murza’s family fear he may not live to see the end of Putin’s regime.

He suffers from a degenerative nerve condition called polyneuropathy. The condition is the result of two Kremlin-sanctioned poisoning attempts in Moscow in 2015 and 2017. Since 2022, his health has deteriorated sharply – even more so since Christmas, when I first spoke to his wife Evgenia about his imprisonment. According to Evgenia, he has now lost 30 kg since his arrest, and no longer has any sensation in either of his legs and one of his arms.

The prison authorities in Russia have, unsurprisingly, prevented him from receiving medical treatment. And there is, of course, every possibility that the Kremlin could make another attempt on his life while they have him under lock and key. 

For Kara-Murza’s family, colleagues and supporters, then, time is of the essence. They are calling on the British government to create a dedicated hostage affairs envoy who could advocate for British nationals held abroad. Speaking in London on 11 April to mark two years since his arrest, Evgenia called on the British government to ‘stand with those Russians who are the faces of a democratic Russia that we all want to see, to stand with them and to fight for their survival not because they are UK citizens, but honestly because this is the right thing to do.’

Speaking at the same event, chair of the foreign affairs select committee Alicia Kearns announced the formation of a new all-party parliamentary group on hostage taking and arbitrary detention, due to launch in the coming weeks. Its focus, she said, would be to ‘[try] to make sure that everyone is left in no doubt that hostage taking is an act of terror’. How effective this APPG will be in aiding Kara-Murza remains to be seen.

The dialogue around releasing Kara-Murza has, according to those around him, improved since David Cameron became Foreign Secretary in November. Evgenia, and Kara-Murza’s mother Elena Gordon, met with Cameron at the start of March. But there is little to suggest the UK has a coherent plan for this tricky diplomatic situation. In February, just days after Navalny’s death, the Foreign Office said the government ‘could not and would not countenance a policy of a prisoners swap’. This shot down any hopes that Kara-Murza could be returned through a prisoner exchange, as Germany was reportedly considering in the case of Navalny before his untimely death.

Chris Allan, a senior civil servant in the Foreign Office, also spoke at the event last week. He insisted the government would do its utmost to keep Kara-Murza’s case in the spotlight. He promised it would continue raising Kara-Murza’s imprisonment with the authorities in Moscow, as well as on the international stage through platforms such as the UN. 

But this sort of lobbying will only carry Kara-Murza’s cause so far, and crucially will have little sway over the Kremlin. Without firmer action (tightening sanctions against Russia, boosting aid to Ukraine, firmer rhetoric towards Moscow and the threat of more meaningful diplomatic punishment for holding British citizens in illegal detention) to demonstrate that the British government can back up tough talk with tough action, Putin will never meaningfully engage with our politicians.

The simple reason for this is that Putin is a bully. He only recognises, and responds to, force and actions. Words, to him, are meaningless. Until the British government recognises this and steps up its game, Kara-Murza will remain in Siberia.