Criticizing the Kremlin: Human Rights Sanctions Coming in the Case of Vladimir Kara-Murza

By Ashley Collins

Yesterday, the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs announced that Canada would soon be sanctioning Russian individuals responsible for the arbitrary detention of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian dissident and senior advisor to Human Rights First whose imprisonment for criticizing the Putin regime has sparked global condemnation. This welcome move would make Canada the first country to respond with sanctions since Kara-Murza’s detention six months ago and comes days after Human Rights First filed a formal recommendation to the U.S. government calling for Magnitsky sanctions and other targeted measures against 13 Russians involved in the arbitrary detention, harassment, and attempted murder of Kara-Murza.

As a Russian activist, political opposition leader, and journalist, Kara-Murza has long been a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin’s regime and, more recently, of its invasion of Ukraine. For this, he has been arbitrarily detained in Russia since April 2022, after a pretextual arrest for allegedly disobeying the police. In the weeks leading up to his arrest, Kara-Murza had continued his advocacy work, including providing testimony on the Kremlin’s efforts to silence dissent and its involvement in war crimes in Ukraine before the Arizona House of Representatives. The criminal charges against Kara-Murza – for spreading “deliberately false information” about the Russian Armed Forces – were based on these statements.

Since his initial arrest, courts in Moscow have repeatedly extended his pretrial detention. In August, he was charged with involvement with an “undesirable” foreign organization. Most recently, in early October 2022, Kara-Murza was charged with “high treason,” and could face 20 years in prison if convicted.

Throughout his six months in detention, Kara-Murza has been denied the right to a fair trial. He has been denied the right to the presumption of innocence, the right to an independent and impartial judge, the right to a public hearing, and the right to the effective preparation of his defense, among others. From the baselessness of the criminal charges against him to procedural maneuvers such as giving him less than an hour notice before a hearing on a serious criminal charge, these violations by Russian officials have underscored that Kara-Murza’s ongoing detention is unlawful in multiple ways.

These abuses are only the latest in a longstanding and vicious pattern of attacks by the Russian government targeting Kara-Murza, along with other political opponents, human rights activists, and journalists. In 2015 and again in 2017, Kara-Murza was poisoned in apparent attempts on his life that resulted in prolonged comas and organ failure. The Kremlin denied involvement, but an investigation revealed that members of a unit of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) had been tailing him prior to both poisonings. The manner in which the attacks were carried out resembled other attempted assassinations of Russian opposition figures, including Alexey Navalny in 2020, and appeared to involve the same KSB unit tied to the 2015 assassination of Kara-Murza’s mentor and former political opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

Since 2010, Kara-Murza has been instrumental in advocating for the enactment of Magnitsky sanctions targeting human rights abusers and corrupt actors in Russia and around the world – efforts that soon became known as Putin’s most hated laws. It would be especially fitting for Canada to use its own Magnitsky-style sanctions against Russian officials now targeting Kara-Murza.

It is also why Human Rights First called on the U.S. government last week to take similar steps to use its own Magnitsky sanctions program against 13 Russian officials tied to Kara-Murza’s arbitrary detention, harassment, and attempted murder. Since 2012, the Russia Magnitsky Act has allowed the U.S. government to impose asset freezes and visa bans on those responsible for “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” (which includes flagrant denials of the right to liberty and the security of person). These sanctions can be used when whistleblowers and those who seek “to obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms” are targeted.

Kara-Murza’s recent detention is clearly sanctionable as a “flagrant denial” of his right to liberty and security, i.e. an arbitrary detention. Under international law, his detention is arbitrary because: 1) it is based on the free exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly; 2) it is a discriminatory detention on the basis of his political opinion; and 3) it stems from grave denials of the right to a fair trial. As he was targeted for seeking to exercise, defend, and promote human rights and freedoms, his detention can be considered for Russia Magnitsky sanctions.

Imposing sanctions under the very law for which he was a key advocate would send a clear message that the United States will hold the Russian government accountable for its crimes. Human Rights First therefore urges the U.S. government to follow Canada’s announcement and to designate the Russians involved in Kara-Murza’s arbitrary detention, harassment, and attempted murder. HRF also calls on other governments like the UK and the EU to follow Canada’s commitment to human rights and impose sanctions for these abuses.

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  • Ashley Collins

Published on October 18, 2022

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