The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Vladimir Kara-Murza is wrongfully detained. Time for the U.S. to say so.

Vladimir Kara-Murza speaks in front of the Russian Embassy on Feb. 27, 2018, in D.C. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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A month ago, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a columnist for Post Opinions, was sentenced to 25 years in a Russian prison for speaking out against the murderous war in Ukraine. At the time, the State Department expressed support for Mr. Kara-Murza and other political prisoners in Russia who are “held unjustly.” Eighty-one members of Congress have urged the Biden administration to formally designate Mr. Kara-Murza, a permanent U.S. resident, as illegally and wrongfully detained, which would place resources behind winning his freedom under the purview of Roger D. Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

Although this would not immediately relieve Mr. Kara-Murza’s serious plight, it is a first step that would allow the United States to negotiate a prisoner exchange with Moscow. But the administration has not made the designation and seems to be having doubts. They should not — and ought to explain their thinking.

Complicating the situation is the fact that the United States is grappling with several difficult and high-level cases. Paul Whelan, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who has U.S., Irish, British and Canadian citizenship, was arrested in 2018 and in 2020 was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in a Russian prison for espionage. A Wall Street Journal correspondent, Evan Gershkovich, was detained March 29 and accused of espionage. Mr. Gershkovich held a valid press accreditation from the Russian Foreign Ministry. Both of these people have been designated by the United States as wrongfully detained, as they should be.

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(Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
Who is Vladimir Kara-Murza?
Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Global Opinions contributor to The Post, is a Russian politician, author and historian. He holds Russian and British passports and settled his family in the United States. He has been an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
What happened to him?
In April 2022, nearly two months after Putin invaded Ukraine, uniformed police officers surrounded Kara-Murza’s car and took him to a Moscow police station.
Why was he arrested?
Initially detained on a spurious charge of disobeying the police, Kara-Murza was indicted 11 days later under a law passed in the wake of the invasion. A Russian court charged him with spreading what it considers “false” information. He maintains his innocence.
What did the Russian court decide?
A Russian court sentenced Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison on charges of treason. A week before the sentencing, he denounced the charges, saying in part: “The day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate.”
What did he say about the war in Ukraine?
In the month he was arrested, Kara-Murza called the government “a regime of murderers” in an interview. He had also accused Russia of war crimes in a speech to the Arizona House of Representatives. He was locked up for telling the truth, The Post’s Editorial Board wrote.
What has he written since his arrest?
Kara-Murza continues to write for The Post via letters from jail, writing “the only reason for my arrest was my political and, above all, antiwar position.” He said hundreds of people who protested the war in Ukraine were imprisoned. Still, he stayed resolute: “Russia will be free,” he wrote. “I’ve never been so sure of it as I am today.”
Is this the first time he has been targeted?
No. Kara-Murza has been poisoned twice: in 2015 and 2017. He has been followed by Russian officers. His friends and associates have been attacked, jailed and killed. Kara-Murza has described his imprisonment as a kind of badge of honor worn by Russian oppositionists before him.


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Mr. Kara-Murza is — in the words of his wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza — a Renaissance man. A historian, filmmaker and journalist, he became a leading opposition politician in Russia, learning at the knee of reformer Boris Nemtsov. He has twice survived poisonings for his political efforts. Mr. Kara-Murza contributes a periodic opinion column to The Post, often focusing on his vision for a free Russia. In an interview from prison just published with journalist Yevgenia Albats, editor in chief of New Times, Mr. Kara-Murza said he returned to Moscow last year with a clear sense of purpose. “I am deeply and firmly convinced that a politician can only remain a politician while in his own country,” he said. “The public politician must share the risks with his fellow citizens. It is impossible to call on people to fight against an authoritarian regime while being at a safe distance.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Kara-Murza qualifies for the designation as wrongfully detained under the Levinson Act. He has “significant ties to the United States”: His wife and children are U.S. citizens. (He holds British and Russian citizenship.) The State Department says that in making a determination, it considers “the totality of the circumstances,” including factors such as “the fairness of the judicial process, the veracity of the charges, and motivation or other circumstances surrounding or related to the arrest or the detention.” Mr. Kara-Murza’s trial procedure was highly irregular. The charges against him — treason, belonging to an undesirable organization and dissemination of false information about the Russian military — are based on five speeches in which he spoke nothing but truth. The motivation of the arrest was to silence him. Sure, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government has made it illegal to criticize the military, including the use of the word “war.” But the United States should not be endorsing this absurdity. Mr. Putin is a perpetrator of war crimes against Ukraine; that is the real criminality.

Mr. Kara-Murza stands for unshakable principles. The United States should stand with him.

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