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The Undesirable Journey of Vladimir Kara-Murza: Challenging Russia’s Repression

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On a hot summer day in 2019 at The Hague, a city synonymous with the quest for justice, our organization, Free Russia Foundation, was hosting a conference entitled “Navigating the Grey Zone: Propaganda vs. Free Speech.” In the middle of the event, we received chilling news: the Kremlin had branded our organization “undesirable.” The irony was as sharp as it was intentional. Here, in The Hague – the seat of many international tribunals and where so many Russians dream of seeing Vladimir Putin answer for his actions — the Kremlin’s declaration was a stark reminder of the battle we face. For us, The Hague was more than just a backdrop for intellectual discourse, it was a statement, a bold declaration that even as the Kremlin sought to silence us, our voices would resonate louder in a place where justice is not just a concept, but a cornerstone, echoing through the halls where international law reigns supreme.

Fast forward to May 2024, in a world drastically changed by more than two years of the Kremlin’s full-scale war on Ukraine: Vladimir Kara-Murza, Free Russia Foundation’s former vice president, received word that he had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his articles published in the Washington Post, penned from the prison cell where he was serving a 25-year sentence in a system that represents the opposite of justice. Kara-Murza was convicted in 2023 in an utterly corrupted and centrally controlled “court” for alleged “treason,” the very nature of which was his firm and outspoken position against the barbaric war in Ukraine. The news of Alexei Navalny’s death – undoubtedly murder – less than three months before Kara-Murza’s award, still hung heavy in the air, a stark reminder of the lengths the regime would go to silence its critics. Just a month later, a landmark decision by the European Court of Human Rights would further validate Kara-Murza’s struggle.

Yet, on July 4, Russian authorities notified Kara-Murza’s lawyers that he had been transferred to a hospital in Omsk, southwestern Siberia. For more than a week, his lawyers were denied access – they had last seen him on July 2. Uncertainty about his whereabouts and concerns about his health, due to polyneuropathy caused by two Kremlin-orchestrated poisonings, prompted Free Russia Foundation to launch an international campaign. Under mounting pressure, one of Kara-Murza’s lawyers finally was allowed to visit him in the hospital. While his condition is relatively stable, his lawyers are working to clarify the grounds for his medical examination and to prevent future violations of his rights.

His case and the cause of freedom that he has pursued so vigorously are testimony that Russian civil society and the international community can achieve results, and cry out for greater efforts on both fronts.

Dramatic Crackdown

Under Putin’s rule, Russia has witnessed a dramatic crackdown on civil society, independent media, and opposition voices. The introduction of the “undesirable organizations” law in 2015 marked a new low in this repression: the law was a weapon forged in the heat of Putin’s paranoia and allowed the General Prosecutor’s Office to designate any foreign or international NGO as “undesirable” on the flimsiest of pretexts. Among the first to be targeted was the National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Foundations, quickly followed by the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. The designations targeted organizations that had long worked to promote civil society, democratic values, and international cooperation. The consequences were as swift as they were severe, with operations in Russia prohibited, assets frozen, and associations criminalized.

In the span of nine years, from 2015 to 2024, the list of the “undesirables” swelled from these four to a staggering 170, a roll call of the brightest minds and bravest hearts in human rights, academia, and media. The human cost of this Orwellian nightmare was embodied in the heart-wrenching story of Anastasia Shevchenko. An activist with the “undesirable” pro-democracy Open Russia movement founded by exiled businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Shevchenko found herself ensnared in the government’s web of persecution. Placed under house arrest, she was forced to watch helplessly in January 2019 as her terminally ill 17-year-old daughter, Alina, was taken away to an intensive care unit. Despite the gravity of the situation, the lead investigator only allowed Shevchenko to visit her daughter a few hours before she passed away.

The law’s broad and vague wording left it open to arbitrary application, a feature that became its hallmark. Across Russia, individuals associated with “undesirable” organizations faced harassment, prosecution, and imprisonment. The law had become a tool for silencing dissent and crushing opposition voices. The scope of it expanded over the years. In 2021, amendments prohibited Russian nationals from participating in the activities of “undesirable” organizations, even if they were located outside Russia. Activists, journalists and ordinary citizens found themselves at risk of criminal prosecution for actions as simple as sharing information from an “undesirable” organization on social media.

Lodging an Appeal: `A Masterclass in Futility’

The law also affected us at Free Russia Foundation because the measure imperiled any Russian citizen if they so much as communicated with us. Believing that freedom of association is a universal right, we decided to challenge our “undesirable” designation. The fight against this law took us through the labyrinth of the Russian legal system. From the Tverskoy District Court to the Supreme Court of Russia, our journey was a masterclass in futility. At each stage, our appeals were swiftly dismissed, often in hearings that lasted only minutes, underscoring the lack of due process.

Through a set of documents obtained by our attorney, Vadim Prokhorov, during court proceedings, we were able to shed light on the opaque process that led to our designation. The cast of characters read like a who’s who of the Russian security apparatus. From operatives of the Federal Security Service (known by its Russian acronym FSB and the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB) to Foreign Ministry bureaucrats, all played their part in this theater of the absurd. The documents included:

  • A denunciation to the Prosecutor General’s Office from Nikolai Ryzhkov, a career security officer and State Duma deputy who has been under U.S. sanctions since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
  • A letter from the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Center for Combating Extremism to the Prosecutor General’s Office.
  • Two letters from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Prosecutor General’s Office, one of which explicitly referred to our activities as “Russophobic.”
  • A detailed report from the FSB to the Prosecutor General’s Office.
  • The final decision of the Prosecutor General’s Office.

The FSB report, dated May 29, 2019, read like a Cold War-era dossier. It painted Free Russia Foundation as master puppeteers, pulling strings to topple the mighty Putin regime. The level of detail was both impressive and chilling — our board members, experts, and even conference attendees were meticulously cataloged, as if we were planning a revolution instead of promoting democracy. The architects of our downfall were themselves figures of dubious repute. General Alexei Sedov (under U.S. sanctions since 2021 for leading an FSB service that allegedly coordinated with the unit that poisoned Navalny), signed the FSB report.

The Prosecutor General’s decision cited our board’s composition, our reports on sanctions and Russian cyberattacks and our support for democracy movements as grounds for the designation. The irony was not lost on us that while we were accused of “attempting to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs,” our goal has always been to advocate for principled policies from Western countries toward the Putin regime, particularly in light of its violations of international human rights obligations.

Taking the Case to a European Court – and the International Community

Having exhausted all domestic remedies, we turned to the European Court of Human Rights, meticulously documenting the arbitrary nature of the “undesirable” designation. Kara-Murza, who as a journalist, political opposition figure, and filmmaker has been the living embodiment of courage in the face of tyranny, stood at the heart of this struggle. Among the several dozen complaints filed with the ECtHR were those submitted by Kara-Murza and Free Russia Foundation, prepared by lawyers Prokhorov and Maria Voskobitova. Their tireless efforts played a crucial role in securing a fundamental decision from the ECtHR.

From the halls of the U.S. Congress to the chambers of the European Parliament and the pages of the Washington Post, Kara-Murza’s name became synonymous with the struggle for Russian democracy. His monstrous 25-year sentence came in a courtroom that echoed with the ghosts of Soviet show trials. The charges against him read like a litany of the regime’s fears, including a longer sentence for his association with Free Russia Foundation, his tireless advocacy for democracy, and his instrumental role in the U.S. Magnitsky Act, legislation that struck fear into the hearts of Russia’s kleptocrats. Twice poisoned by the same shadowy forces that have silenced so many of Putin’s critics, including the late Alexei Navalny, Kara-Murza refused to give up the fight. His words at the trial, delivered with the quiet dignity of a man who knows he stands on the right side of history, still ring in our ears: “I know that the day will come when the darkness engulfing our country will dissipate… But for it to come sooner, more of our fellow citizens must stop being afraid.”

On June 18, 2024, the ECtHR delivered a landmark judgment in the case of Andrey Rylkov Foundation and Others v. Russia. This ruling, which addressed 85 applications lodged against the Russian Federation, marked a pivotal moment in the ongoing struggle against Russia’s “undesirable organizations” law. The ECtHR found that this law violated Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect freedom of expression and association. It laid bare the law’s critical flaws: the undue burden it placed on organizations, its ex post facto nature and the lack of judicial recourse. In essence, the Court held a mirror to the Russian legal system, and the reflection was damning.

This ruling is more than a legal victory; it’s a beacon of hope. For people charged with associating with organizations such as ours, for those convicted under the law like Kara-Murza, it offers a powerful legal argument to challenge their unjust convictions. And for us at Free Russia Foundation, where Vladimir’s wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza, is director for international advocacy, it vindicates our struggle and renews our resolve.

As we stand at this crossroads of history, looking back on the journey from 2015 to 2024, we are struck by the indomitable spirit of Russia’s civil society. The ECtHR ruling, while a significant milestone, is but one step on the long march to a free and democratic Russia. It’s a reminder that even in the darkest of times, the light of justice can still shine through.

To the international community, our message is clear: stand with us, stand with Russian civil society in this crucial battle for human rights and democracy. Specifically in the case of Vladimir Kara-Murza, it is essential for the international community to apply intense pressure on the Russian government to respect his fundamental rights and to provide full transparency regarding his situation. The road ahead – for Vladimir, for other political prisoners in Russia, and for the Russian people at home and in exile – is long and fraught with danger, but with each step, we move closer to a Russia where the rule of law prevails and the voices of the people are heard.

IMAGE: Russian activist Vladimir Kara-Murza speaks during a hearing of the US Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs on Capitol Hill March 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), the chairman of the subcommittee, was holding a hearing entitled “Civil Society Perspectives on Russia” regarding Russia’s use of influence and aggression, particularly in a regional context. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

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