Perspectives September 28, 2023
Freeing Vladimir Kara-Murza Should Be a US Government Priority
Vladimir Kara-Murza is a prominent Russian democratic opposition leader, a fierce critic of dictator Vladimir Putin, a historian, and a regular Washington Post contributor. He is a courageous, deeply principled man, and a passionate advocate for political and civil rights in his native Russia. He is also currently being held as a political prisoner by Russian authorities.
Despite the clear danger for opposition voices in Russia, especially following the full-scale military invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Kara-Murza—a lawful permanent resident (LPR) of the United States and the father of three young children—chose to return to his home country from abroad in April 2022, saying that he must go back to stand with Russian antiwar protesters and against Vladimir Putin. He was arrested just days after his return to Moscow, and has remained in prison ever since. In April 2023, Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison—the maximum possible sentence—on bogus charges for his criticism of Putin’s corrupt and repressive regime and the Kremlin’s ongoing illegal war against Ukraine.
Kara-Murza’s arrest was widely condemned internationally, and the US State Department rightly imposed sanctions on those involved for “gross violations of human rights.” We spoke with Katie LaRoque, Freedom House’s Deputy Director for Policy and Advocacy for Europe and Eurasia, about how the United States government can—and should—increase its efforts to free Kara-Murza.
What can you tell us about Vladimir Kara-Murza’s current situation?
Katie LaRoque: Since his arrest in April 2022, Vladimir Kara-Murza's human rights have been continually and egregiously violated by Russian authorities. The United States government should work urgently to secure his release.
Kara-Murza's health has rapidly deteriorated while in Kremlin custody. His wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza, has reported that he has lost more than 50 pounds in the last year and is facing paralysis in both of his feet due to untreated polyneuropathy—a condition brought on as a result of the poisonings carried out by the Kremlin in attempts on his life in 2015 and 2017.
Moreover, and alarmingly, after Kara-Murza was transferred to a prison facility somewhere in Siberia—two days before his birthday—the specifics about his location remained unknown for nearly three weeks. During this time, his location was concealed from his lawyers and family, leaving Kara-Murza in a “gray zone,” in the hands of Kremlin authorities who have already tried to kill him twice. On September 24, Kara-Murza’s lawyers announced that he had been located, and was being held in a punishment cell in a maximum security prison facility in Siberia.
What can the US government do for Kara-Murza beyond imposing sanctions on those responsible for his arrest and imprisonment?
Kara-Murza’s rapidly deteriorating health and the conditions of his detention require a more robust response; namely, the US government should immediately designate Vladimir Kara-Murza as “wrongfully detained” under the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act.
Kara-Murza meets the legal criteria to be designated “wrongfully detained” under the Levinson Act, and the US State Department should do so expeditiously.
First, as an LPR of the United States, Kara-Murza is eligible for this designation, open under the Levinson Act to “United States nationals,” which includes both US citizens and LPRs. As recently as August 14, 2023, the US State Department has confirmed that LPRs have been designated “wrongfully detained” under the act; Kara-Murza should be also. One notable example of a US LPR being designated “wrongfully detained” under the Levinson Act is Paul Rusesabagina of Rwanda, the famed “Hotel Rwanda” human rights activist and a political dissident who has lived and worked in San Antonio, Texas, for more than 10 years. Rusesabagina, an LPR, was designated “wrongfully detained” by the US government after his August 2020 flight to Burundi was redirected to Rwanda, where he was subsequently arrested, tortured, and sentenced to 25 years in prison in a sham trial.
Second, Kara-Murza meets 10 of the 11 criteria in the law, which also makes him readily eligible for the “wrongfully detained” designation. The law clearly states that designations can be made on criteria “which may include” the 11 enumerated provisions, but nowhere does it state that all 11 criteria must be met. The only criterion which may not be applicable in Kara-Murza’s case is number two—that “the individual is being detained solely or substantially because he or she is a United States national.” While Kara-Murza has likely not been detained solely or substantially because he is a US national, neither was Rusesabagina, who has been granted the designation. More importantly, the fact that Kara-Murza was a resident of a democracy where he could write and speak freely about Putin’s ongoing repression and corruption was likely a true annoyance for the Kremlin and a factor in his arrest.
Why is a “wrongfully detained” designation important?
Receiving a “wrongfully detained” designation under the Levinson Act would not result in Kara-Murza’s immediate freedom, but could accelerate its likelihood. A “wrongfully detained” designation would transfer Kara-Murza’s case to the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs (SPEHA) for further diplomatic and political actions to be taken on his behalf. Put plainly, it would make securing Kara-Murza's release an explicit priority for the US government.
The Kremlin clearly considers Kara-Murza to be a high-value political prisoner, shown by virtue of the fact that he received the maximum possible sentence for the fabricated crimes pinned on him simply for his opposition to Putin and the Kremlin’s illegal war in Ukraine. For this, we want to stress that “wrongfully detained” designations may be private (as opposed to public). If the US State Department considers a public designation to be too incendiary, a private designation would be a suitable option.
Why should Americans care about Kara-Murza’s freedom?
Seeking the freedom of Kara-Murza is deeply in line with US strategic interests vis-à-vis Russia, as he offers a different vision for his country—one of a democratic and peaceful Russia. No one has articulated this more eloquently than Kara-Murza’s wife, Evgenia:
He [Kara-Murza] is driven by this idea that Russia can be different and that millions and millions of Russians reject Vladimir Putin’s regime and everything it stands for. They need a voice… Putin has shown through his actions, time and again, that he will not stay within Russia’s borders. This is why getting Russia to become a democracy is in the interest of the entire world… This is why I believe the United States should stand with those fighting for freedom in Russia, because they represent an alternative to Vladimir Putin… If we do not stand with them… if we allow Putin to squash those protests against his regime, there will be no one left.
Kara-Murza’s 25-year prison sentence is a brutal and exponential injustice on top of his unjust imprisonment. The Kremlin’s draconian—and outright Stalinist—sentence for Kara-Murza on spurious charges is Putin’s latest, cowardly attempt to silence him once and for all. We cannot let him succeed.
Kara-Murza is both an advocate for universal human values and a hero to the people of Russia. He has dedicated his life to advancing freedom and democracy—and for this, he has suffered greatly at the hands of Putin and his cronies. Kara-Murza continues to sacrifice to defend the principles we hold so dear in the United States. His release from prison should be a priority for the US government, as is the release of any wrongfully detained US person.
It’s simple: Kara-Murza meets the criteria to receive a “wrongfully detained” designation under the Levinson Act. He is a legal permanent resident of the US and is dedicated deeply to democracy. He is a leading champion for a free and democratic Russia, which is clearly in the moral and strategic interests of the United States. Seeking his immediate and unconditional release has overwhelming bipartisan support. We must do all that we can to see him released and returned to his family and his important cause.