Today, the two year anniversary of Boris Nemtsov’s death, which was remembered today in Moscow and other Russia cities, is an appropriate day to honor Vladimir Kara-Murza’s brave fight; and to make it clear that what is amazing is not that he was poisoned twice by a mysterious substance, but that he is still alive, given his activities of the last ten years.
On February 2, 35-year old Vladimir Kara-Murza was brought to this City Clinical Hospital in Moscow with the symptoms of poisoning. Fortunately, on February 19, Vadim Prokhorov, Kara-Murza’s lawyer, announced that the Kara-Murza had come out of his medically-induced coma and although still unable to speak, had left Russia for treatment abroad. Given Kara-Murza’s political actions, detailed below, which have made him a personal enemy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is truly remarkable that Kara-Murza is still alive.
This was the second attempt to poison Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition journalist and politician, the coordinator of the “Open Russia” movement established by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The poisoning symptoms were similar to those of his first poisoning in May 2015 when Kara-Murza went to the Moscow First City Hospital in terrible condition. Later his tissue samples were studied by the French toxicologist Dr. Pascal Kintz, who found that in the blood samples, nails, hair and urine the manganese concentration exceeded the normal level 59.5 times, copper, 1.8 times, zinc, 2.25, and mercury, 1.2 times. Simultaneously, the iron concentration in the body was found 19 times LESS than the minimum acceptable level.
Although the French toxicologist did not arrive to a definite conclusion, some experts noted that a very sophisticated method of decreasing the iron concentration necessary for normal blood functioning was used. As Kara-Murza commented himself, only Russian “special services or former special services officers” usually have access to such sophisticated poisoning substances.
In 2008, when a term limit that kept Putin from running for President again, Kara-Murza backed Vladimir Bukovsky, the famous Soviet dissident who spent 12 years in prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for “anti-Soviet activity”, for Russian President, chairing Bukovsky’s presidential campaign committee. Kara-Murza compared Bukovsky to Vaclav Havel, the famous Czech politician: “Russia today needs its own Vaclav Havel, and not just another successor to the KGB. That is why we put forward the candidate Vladimir Bukovsky in the Russian Federation Presidental election.” However, the Russian Central Electorate Commission refused to register Bukovsky. Dimitry Medvedev became Russian President, and Putin remained in power as Prime Minister.
In July 2012, when Kara-Murza worked as the Washington bureau chief of RTVi, a Russian TV station, he reported that he had been denied access to the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. As he said, the decision was taken on the orders of the ambassador himself, that Kara-Murza was “no longer a journalist.” Later he was put on a blacklist and could not be employed as a journalist by any Russian media sources.
The reason for this ban was Kara-Murza’s advocacy of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, then being considered by the US Congress. The draft law was named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Moscow lawyer who uncovered a US $230-million tax fraud scheme in which several law-enforcement Russian officials were involved. In 2009, Magnitsky was arrested and died in prison, after being tortured and denied medical care. The purpose of the Act was to prevent the issuing of U.S. visas to persons “responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky”, and to freeze access to any U.S.-based assets those persons might hold. The law also extended to cover Russian officials involved in broader acts of corruption and in violations of basic civil liberties.
On July 25, 2012, Kara-Murza testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress about human-rights abuses in Russia and described the proposed Magnitsky Law as “a pro-Russian bill which provides a much-needed measure of accountability for those who continue to violate the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens.” In December 2012, in an article he co-authored with Boris Nemtsov, then leading opposition politician, Kara-Murza reiterated his support for the Magnitsky Act which he and Nemtsov called “a pro-Russian law that strikes at the heart of the Kremlin’s mafia-like system.”
In the same article Kara-Murza and Nemtsov also asked Canada to pass a similar act. A bill introduced by Liberal MP Irwin Cotler and was under consideration by the International Human Rights Subcommittee of the Canadian Parliament’s House of Commons. Nemtsov and Kara-Murza even visited Ottawa to support the bill. In 2013, both Nemtsov and Kara-Murza spoke in favor of the proposed version of the Magnitsky law in the European Parliament (EU).
In March 2014, noting that the average Russian opposes intervention in Ukraine by the Putin government, Kara-Murza stated that the world “should respond to Putin’s aggression” by imposing sanctions against its perpetrators. In 2016, Estonia passed its own Global Magnitsky Act legislation and currently, Canada and the EU are considering their own versions of Magnitsky sanctions.
Also in 2014, Kara-Murza and Boris Nemtsov, then the leading opposition politician, both exposed corruption during the preparation to the Sochi Olympics, organized under President Putin’s supervision. Just after the Olympics began, Kara-Murza and the Institute of Modern Russia (IMR; Kara-Murza was senior adviser at this Institute) launched an expose “Sochi 2014: The Reverse Side of the Medal.” As the authors claimed, the Games cost an estimated $51 billion, which made them the most expensive games in the history of the Olympics since even Beijing’s Summer Games in 2008 was cheaper ($43 billion). To the press, Kara-Murza added: “Apart from financial abuse, Olympics have [also] been marred by mistreatment of construction workers, mistreatment and forced eviction of local residents, and severe environmental and architectural damage to the area.”
At the time of the “Sochi 2014” release, the IMT also published a booklet, “Winter Olympics in the Sub-Tropics: Corruption and Abuse in Sochi” authorized by Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk. In 2007, Putin gave a speech before the International Olympic Committee in Guatemala pledging to spend $12 billion—twice what his main competitors were offering—on the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The authors estimated about $25 billion–30 billion of the $51 billion was embezzled.
For example, it was estimated that the “Iceberg” Skating Palace would cost $100 million to build, but it cost was $200 million more than that. The Accounts Chamber, which oversees budget expenditures for the government, refuses to publish the expenditures for the Olympic funds contained in its report. The report is classified because it contains “trade secrets.” This is not surprising because all constructions were carried out by the members of Putin’s circle.
After the Olympics, on February 26, 2014, Kara-Murza published an article in The Wall Street Journal describing the Russian reality: “A few hours after the colorful closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, which were intended as a showcase for a modern and self-confident Russia, a court in Moscow sentenced a group of opposition activists to prison terms ranging from two to four years. Their ‘crimes’ all involved protesting President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration at a rally in Bolotnaya Square in May 2012.” Kara-Murza noted that Putin had a “truce” with dissidents during the Games, but that truce was immediately over after the Games.
In March 2015, before his first poisoning and immediately after Boris Nemtsov’s assassination on February 27, 2015, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Chair of the “For Freedom” Foundation named after Nemtsov (it was established by Nemtsov’s daughter Zhanna), started filming the documentary “Nemtsov.” In the documentary, Russian opposition politicians Grigory Yavlinsky, Alexey Navalny, Tatiana Dyachenko, Vladimir Bukovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and others talk about Nemtsov.
In April 2015, Kara-Murza and Mikhail Kasyanov, chair of the opposition party PARNAS, presented a list of eight names to members of the House of Representatives and the Senate of the US Congress. These were the TV presenters and other State-employed journalists and commentators who had created an atmosphere of “hatred, intolerance and violence” around Boris Nemtsov before he was murdered. As Kara-Murza hoped, the names would now be added to those already on the Magnitsky List.
After his first poisoning, on July 5, 2015 Kara-Murza was discharged from the hospital, and went abroad for rehabilitation. In December 2015, Kara-Murza and his colleagues efforts succeeded, the U.S. Congress adopted the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act that sanctioned 18 Russian officials.
The first poisoning did not stop Kara-Murza’s activity. On June 7, 2016, Kara-Murza testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the state of human rights in Russia.
On October 9, 2016, the documentary “Nemtsov” was shown for the first time in Berlin, at the opening event of the first international “Boris Nemtsov Forum”, in which many Russian opposition and European politicians and journalists participated. Kara Murza presented the documentary to the audience.
In December 2016, after receiving results from the French laboratory, Kara-Murza applied to the Russian Investigation Committee to initiate a criminal case on his attempted murder which was motivated by political and ideological hatred. Kara-Murza’s lawyer, Prokhorov, told the press: “The unclear nature of poisoning Vladimir, coming only three months after the assassination of Nemtsov, that has had absolutely disastrous consequences since he has not still recovered and walks with a cane, makes one suspect a deliberate poisoning.”
Less than a month before the second poisoning, on January 9, 2017, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced five new additions to the Specially Designated Nationals List under the Magnitsky Act. Among the new names was General Aleksander Bastrykin, chairman of the Russian Investigative Committee (established in 2011, this agency that has powers similar to the FBI in the U.S.) and a close Putin and Sechin confidant since their days in Leningrad. Bastyrkin is known as a person who on June 4, 2012, together with guards, forced Sergei Sokolov into a car, the Novaya Gazeta (New Newspaper) deputy editor, and drove to a forest, where they made threats against Sokolov’s life. This was Bastyrkin’s response to Sokolov’s article about the unprofessional actions of Bastyrkin’s Investigation Committee. This increased the number of people sanctioned under the to fourty-four.
On the same day, January 9, 2017, during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearings by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kara-Murza submitted a letter addressed to Bob Corker, Chairman, and Cardin, Ranking Member of this Committee. In the letter, Kara-Murza warned the Committee that in Putin’s Russia the practice of violent targeting opposition figures and journalists is on the rise.
Kara-Murza did not mention Tillerson’s previous close connections and deals with Russia, but he intended to attract the attention of the Committee to this fact. In 1998, Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, became a director of the oil company’s Russian subsidiary, Exxon Neftegas. The company is based in a tax haven, Bahamas. Tillerson is close to Igor Sechin, head of the Russian state oil company Rosneft and the de-facto second most powerful figure in the Kremlin. A hardliner, Sechin is an ex-KGB officer and has been closely worked with Putin since 1991 (see below more on Sechin).
Although Tillerson became Exxons’s CEO in2006 and no longer was a director of the Russian subsidiary, he continued business contacts with Russia and with his involvement in a 2011 deal between ExxonMobil and Rosneft to explore the Kara Sea, in the Russian Arctic. For his participation, in 2013 Russian President Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship (in the Soviet Union, it was called the Order of Friendship of Peoples), the highest Russian order given to foreigners.
In 2014, after the Obama administration imposed wide-ranging sanctions against Russia because of the Russian Crimea annexation from Ukraine, the 2011 deal was put on hold. At Exxon’s 2014 annual meeting Tillerson stated that he believes the sanctions to be ineffective, which certainly is not true.
Despite Kara-Murza’s warning, Tillerson was approved as U.S. Secretary of State. There is no information about the reaction of Russian officials to Kara-Murza’s letter, but there is no doubt that the two most powerful persons of the regime, Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin, were not happy to know that Kara-Murza was lobbying in the U.S. Senate for sanctions against Putin’s elite and its deals with such American businessmen like Tillerson.
There are no doubts that both poisonings were politically motivated again. Immediately after the second poisoning of Kara-Murza on February 2, 2017, Vladimir Vishnevsky, a member of St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, immediately said that he considers the poisoning as an assassination attempt and connects it with the activities of the Kara-Murza as a coordinator of the “Open Russia”, as well as with the organization of a nationwide showing of the film about Boris Nemtsov. The lawyer Prokhorov was even more blunt (translated from Russian by V.B.):
In my opinion, they [the poisonins] are connected not only and not so much with the “Open Russia”, but with his active participation in the promotion of the Magnitsky List [in the U.S.]. In my view, the most active participants in promoting the Magnitsky Act were Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Kara-Murza, and Bill Browder.
Boris Nemtsov has been killed, Kara-Murza almost died for the second time, while Browder lives in the West. However, after the Litvinenko affair [Russian] secret services are reluctant to get involved in another international incident.
The Magnitsky Act directly affected our elite, which is exactly what it does not like. Members of the elite want to rule like Stalin and live like [the Russian oligarch Roman] Abramovich. They want to make a concentration camp of the country, but to receive their dividends [in the country] and send their children to study in the West. Sometimes these children return to Russia, to pinch a little off the national wealth, and sometimes they remain right there. However, the grandchildren of our elite will definitely live in the West. And the elite wants to be able to go to the Alps to ski, to warm up in the Cote d’Azur, to call on their grandsons in Cambridge and the Sorbonne, and to just meet the end of their lives not in [Moscow suburban] West Biryulyovo or Tehran, and not even in Havana, but somewhere in Nice. Depriving them of this possibility by the Magnitsky Act was a serious blow to the entire Putin’s political elite.
The list of names on the Magnitsky Act is not finished yet, there may be new names [included]. And those who promoted and continue to promote this concept are real personal blood enemies of the authorities. That’s how I can explain the big attention given to such persons as Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr.
Poisoning of political enemies is a long tradition of the Soviet/Russian authorities and secret services. It started in the 1920s, when the state security used poisons for killing enemies abroad, and a special poison laboratory existed within the secret services (VCheKa-KGB) since 1921 (for details, see my book The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science). The laboratory was especially active from 1938 to 1946, when inhuman tests of poisons on political prisoners condemned to death and even on randomly chosen people were performed. As the head of this laboratory testified in 1953 when he was arrested, after World War II he carried out scores of secret political killings of Soviet citizens and some foreigners by poisoning. The order to use poisons for killings always came from the Soviet leaders, the dictator Josef Stalin himself and his circle. At the end of the Soviet Union, there was already a whole research institute working on poisons. During Putin’s tenure, poisons were used at least in the following cases:
2002 – Amir Khattab, a Chechen military field commander known as “Black Arab”, died after opening a letter, apparently impregnated with a poison substance. This happened during the Second Chechen War in Russia, 1999-2009. The operation was carried out by FSB (Federal Security Service, KGB successor)
2003 – Yuri Shchekochikhin, a brilliant investigative journalist (he investigated apartment bombings allegedly directed by the Russian secret services and the Three Whales Corruption Scandal which involved high-ranking FSB officers and was related to money laundering through the Bank of New York), critic of the regime, co-founder of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta and member of the State Duma (Russian Parliament), mysteriously died of an unidentified, apparently radioactive poison.
2004 – Ivan Rybkin, Russian politician who ran for President, disappeared from Moscow for five days and re-appeared in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine after he was drugged and abducted by FSB officers. According to some experts, he might have been administered the so-called “truth drug”.
2004 – 42-year old Roman Tsepov, former MVD (Interior Ministry) officer, head of a private guard agency and a businessman with the reputation of being St. Petersburg’s “grey cardinal”, died of radioactive poisoning. Apparently, he was injected with an overdose of a radioactive drug used to fight leukemia. This was at least the fourth attempt on Tsepov’s life. He had direct connections with Vladimir Putin, Igor Sechin, and Viktor Zolotov, who later commanded Putin and Kremlin’s guards (Federal Guard Service, FSO), and currently is Commander-in-Chief of the Russian National Guards, Putin’s personal 400,000-men army. In the early 1990s, all of them worked in the St. Petersburg City Administration.
2004 – Anna Politkovskaya, a brilliant opposition journalist and fierce critic of Putin’s regime, was poisoned while flying in a plane to the North Caucasus; she survived, but was assassinated two years later, in 2006
2004 – Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian presidential candidate, was poisoned in Kiev by a dioxin compound. Due to emergency medical treatment in Germany, Yushchenko survived and was then elected Ukrainian President.
2006 – Aleksander Litvinenko, former FSB officer, a defector and fierce critic of Putin’s regime, died in London of poisoning by radioactive polonium. The names of two Russian security officers who administered the poison in Litvinenko’s tea are known, but in Russia they are enjoying immunity from prosecution. One of them, Andrei Lugovoi, was even elected a member of the Russian Duma (Parliament). On January 9, 2017, the US Department of the Treasury added the names of these two killers, Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, to the Specially Designated Nationals List under the Magnitsky Act.
2006 – Yegor Gaidar, an economist and opposition politician, former Russian Prime Minister from 1993-94, was poisoned by an unidentified toxin during a visit to Dublin; he survived. As one of the experts in Russian spy craft noted, “Gaidar was used as a pawn just to divert initial attention from Litvinenko. Among the illegals [i.e., Russian spies who secretly arrived in the country] it is known as imitatsiya [imitation].” Ominously, Gaidar died only three years later at the age of only 53
2012 – Alexander Perepilichny, 44-year-old Russian businessman who lived in London, collapsed and died outside of a mansion he rented. Traces of the “heartbreak grass”, a poisonous plant that grows in China, were found in his stomach. Perepilichny had been given asylum in the UK after exposing Russian officials complicit in a tax scam involving some 200 million euro, in which high-up Russian officials were involved. He had been helping a Swiss investigation into this Russian money-laundering and also provided evidence against Russian officials linked to the 2009 death of Sergei Magnitsky
2015 – Vladimir Kara Murza was poisoned by an unknown substance that provoked high concentration of heavy metals in his body. This happened after he for years strongly criticized Putin’s regime and lobbied for the Magnitsky Law adoption by the U.S. Senate. He survived and continued his political activity.
2017 – Vladimir Kara Murza was poisoned for the second time by a similar toxin. He survived but is still in critical condition.
On February 20, 2017, Moscow Tverskoi Regional Court ruled to arrest in absentia William Browder, the third person who worked to get the Magnitsky Law passed. From 1995-2007 Browder, a businessman who lives in London, was the biggest foreign investor in Russia. Magnitsky worked in Moscow branch of Browder’s company and now Browder furiously fights with Russian authorities demanding justice for Magnitsky’s memory. He leads the global Magnitsky Justice Campaign and is the author of “Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No 1 Enemy.”
The court that ordered Browder’s arrest was the same one that on July 11, 2013 found him guilty of the “evasion from payment of taxes […] by including in the tax declaration of false information [by] a group of persons by prior agreement on a large scale.” He was sentenced in absentia “to nine years of imprisonment in a penal colony with the deprivation of the right to engage in entrepreneurial activity on the territory of Russia for 3 years.” Ironically, Browder is a grandson of Earl Browder, former long-time leader of American communists.
The next day, on February 21, the UK House of Commons unanimously passed the UK Magnitsky Sanctions legislation. It was voted on as part of the UK Criminal Finances Bill and will allow the British government to freeze assets of human rights abusers in the UK. Browder praised the adopted legislation: “The new Magnitsky Sanctions Legislation is going to cause perceptible fear for kleptocrats in Russia and other authoritarian regimes. They all have expensive properties in London and think they are untouchable.”
As for Kara-Murza’s plans, on February 19 his lawyer Prokhorov stated: “Volodya specifically asked me to convey to all his friends, colleagues and associates, that he certainly will continue to pursue the same issues he did in recent years, the activities aimed at the restoration of democracy in Russia. This fully applies to the Magnitsky Act, which could be one of the reasons for his present and previous poisonings.”
Fortunately, despite Donald Trump’s oft-stated “admiration” of Vladimir Putin, there is still support for Kara-Murza’s brave dissent in the United States. U.S Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) issued a statement regarding Kara-Murza’s poisoning. Then on February 7th, Republican Senator John McCain slammed President Donald Trump’s assertion about the moral equivalency of the United States and Vladimir Putin’s Russia: “Vladimir [Kara-Murza] knew there was no moral equivalence between the United States and Putin’s Russia.”