Kara-Murza’s detention, two years on: A tale of resilience amid Russian authoritarianism
On the two-year anniversary of the journalist and activist's detention in Putin's Russia, we call on the UK to take action
11 Apr 24

Vladimir Kara-Murza visits the location of Boris Nemtsov's assassination in Moscow in 2021. Photo: Michał Siergiejevicz, CC BY 2.0

Today marks two long years since Vladimir Kara-Murza, a journalist, author, filmmaker, opposition politician, husband and father of three was detained by the Putin regime.

Kara-Murza, a British citizen, had been a tireless pro-democracy campaigner and a champion of legislation that has provided for human rights violators and corrupt officials around the world to be subject to asset freezes and visa bans (Magnitsky Acts). In most of Europe, Kara-Murza is rightly lauded for his work in defense of human rights and was awarded the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize in 2022. 

But in Russia Kara-Murza is deemed a threat to Putin and his rule. That legislation he championed for is, after all, named after someone else who dared to speak truth to power: Sergei Magnitsky, who was murdered in a Russian prison after being brutally tortured for 358 days. Last year, Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison. It is the lengthiest sentence currently being served by any political prisoner in Russia.

During his detention, Kara-Murza has been forced to endure deplorable conditions, solitary confinement, and ill treatment. His time in solitary confinement has been repeatedly extended for trivial reasons, such as sitting on the bed to put on shoes. He has been consistently denied access to medical care despite suffering from polyneuropathy, a condition affecting his central nervous system, which was damaged when he was near-fatally poisoned by FSB operatives on two separate occasions in 2015 and 2017. 

Due to his medical condition he should, according to Russia’s own legislation, be discharged from having to serve his sentence behind bars at all. Instead he is detained in a maximum-security prison in Siberia where he is subject to sub-zero temperatures, barely edible food, a constantly lit cell, and deprived of rest once his metal bed frame is promptly locked away at 5.20am. 

When the 25-year sentence was handed down to Kara-Murza last year, Navalny said – from his own prison cell – that the sentence was “revenge for the fact that he did not die” from the previous attempts on his life. Kara-Murza’s life is in real and present danger. 

Yet, the response of the UK government has so far been woefully inadequate. It must take urgent and decisive action, using every means at its disposal to secure his immediate release. With every passing day, the risk of him meeting a similar fate to Magnitsky or Alexei Navalny is increasing. 

By Bill Browder and Jessica Ní Mhainín

Bill Browder was the largest foreign investor in Russia until 2005, when he was denied entry to the country and declared “a threat to national security” for exposing corruption in Russian state-owned companies. In 2008, Browder’s lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered a massive fraud committed by Russian government officials that involved the theft of US $230 million of state taxes. Sergei testified against state officials involved in this fraud and was subsequently arrested, imprisoned without trial and systematically tortured. He spent a year in prison under horrific detention conditions, was repeatedly denied medical treatment, and died in prison on November 16, 2009, leaving behind a wife and two children. Since then, Mr. Browder has sought justice outside of Russia and started a global campaign for governments around the world to impose targeted visa bans and asset freezes on human rights abusers and highly corrupt officials. The United States was the first to impose these targeted sanctions with the passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability Act in 2012, followed by the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act in 2016. Jessica Ní Mhainín is Head of Policy and Campaigns at Index on Censorship. She joined Index in April 2019 and since 2020 has led Index's project work, which seeks to protect and defend journalists, human rights defenders, artists, and academics around the world. She is co-founder of the UK Anti-SLAPP Coalition and has been actively involved in anti-SLAPP campaigns across Europe. She has experience in international human rights advocacy through her work at Front Line Defenders and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). She holds a Master’s degree in EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies from the College of Europe.