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My Friend, the Traitor

Vladimir Kara-Murza, one of Russia's greatest patriots, has been sentenced to 25 years in prison.
April 19, 2023
My Friend, the Traitor
Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza sits on a bench inside a defendants' cage during a hearing at the Basmanny court in Moscow on October 10, 2022. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)

I have been friends with Vladimir Kara-Murza for many years. Along with Bill Browder and Boris Nemtsov, we advocated for the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law and Accountability Act, which imposes sanctions on Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses. (A successor law, the Global Magnitsky Act, expands the sanctions to human rights abusers and corrupt actors anywhere, and is among the most noble ongoing policies the U.S. government has.) For his advocacy for that act, which became law in 2012, and for his overall criticism of Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and exposure of Russian corruption, Nemtsov was gunned down yards from the Kremlin in February 2015. Kara-Murza is paying his own price for similar support for the Magnitsky law and criticism of Putin’s second invasion of Ukraine, launched last February.

In fact, Kara-Murza has been attacked—not rhetorically, but physically—four times by the Putin regime. The first was when he was poisoned in Moscow in 2015, just two months after his close friend and political ally Nemtsov was assassinated. After he survived that, the regime tried a second time in 2017. His miraculous recovery from both episodes was never complete, and his health remains precarious.

Last April came the third time Kara-Murza was victimized, when he was arrested and charged with a range of offenses, all of which are legalistic euphemisms for criticism of Putin’s unprovoked and barbaric war against Ukraine. On Monday came the fourth attack, when Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison, the maximum sentence possible, for spreading “disinformation” about the Russian army, collaborating with an “undesirable” organization, and committing high treason. The charges against him are absurd.

Given Kara-Murza’s lingering health problems from his two poisonings, a 25-year sentence is equivalent to the death penalty. Getting him out of prison is essential.

Appealing to the Kremlin on humanitarian grounds is likely to fall on deaf ears, but the idea of a prisoner exchange has been bandied about. On Tuesday, Margarita Simonyan, one of Putin’s most loyal and odious propagandists, floated an intriguing idea. According to a tweet by Aleksei Venediktov, the former head of Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, Simonyan proposed exchanging Vladimir Kara-Murza, Paul Whelan, and Evan Gorshkovich for Julian Assange, who is currently being held in prison in London while challenging extradition to the United States, where he has been charged for publishing hundreds of thousands of leaked documents.

Simonyan may be trolling, as she often does, but she dangles hope that there may be a way to secure the release of not just Kara-Murza but two other innocent people from Russian prison. Whelan and Gershkovitz are American citizens; Kara-Murza, a dual Russian-British citizen, is a U.S. resident. He has lived in the United States for many years with his wife, Evgenia, who is a U.S. citizen, as are their three children.

Whelan has been held captive in Russia since late 2018; Gershkovich is a recent detainee, having been arrested for espionage last month while reporting for the Wall Street Journal. Both have been designated by the State Department as “wrongfully detained.” Kara-Murza, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post, should be given this designation as well, as the Post argues in a recent editorial, to facilitate a prisoner exchange.

Prisoner exchanges, by definition, are unsavory and risk encouraging others to take Americans hostage in the hope of getting something in return. But there is precedent. American basketball star Brittney Griner was exchanged for Viktor Bout, also known as the “merchant of death,” last December after she was arrested on charges similar to those for Mark Fogel (whose case is almost always overlooked). U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed’s freedom was secured last April in a trade involving a Russian pilot, Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was serving a 20-year prison sentence for conspiring to import more than $100 million worth of cocaine into the United States.

No option should be ruled out to seek the release of Kara-Murza, Whelan, Gershkovich, and Fogel.

People who were exiled from the Soviet Union used to say goodbye to their families as if they were saying goodbye to a deceased loved one, because the effect was the same. I’m struggling against the same feeling and regretting I didn’t get to see Vladimir more. After I moved to Miami from Washington, I invited him several times to Florida International University, where I was a senior fellow. I was hoping to get him to Dallas, where I now live and work, but Putin’s thugs intervened. I recall having lunch with him in Washington after his second poisoning and urging him to lie low for a while.

That advice fell on deaf ears, as Kara-Murza was determined to return to Russia, the country where he was born and in which he lived for many years, no matter Putin’s efforts to intimidate him. His courage speaks for itself. He is a true patriot of Russia.

I also have enormous respect for Evgenia Kara-Murza, who reluctantly has taken on the role of activist and advocate and done so heroically and brilliantly. Her courage and devotion remind me of Yelena Bonner and Avital Sharansky.

The fragility of Kara-Murza’s health in the face of his 25-year sentence accelerates the need to secure his release. Whelan and Fogel have suffered too long for no reason. Gershkovich was just doing his job as a reporter. None of them deserves to be held another day in Russian detention.

Putin bears responsibility for the suffering of millions of people, from Ukraine to Syria to Georgia. But the first victims of Putin’s abuses have been Russian citizens themselves, starting with Chechens, who suffered tens of thousands of lives lost and destroyed during Russia’s second attack against that republic in Russia’s southern region. And many thousands of other Russians have been killed, arrested, driven into exile, or subject to political persecution. To the extent that we can spare some from further suffering, we must.

David J. Kramer

David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration, is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and chairs the board of the Free Russia Foundation.