Sanctioning Vladimir Kara-Murza’s Persecutors: Lessons and Next Steps
by Ashley Collins and Adam Keith
Late last month, the U.K. government imposed targeted sanctions on six Russian nationals who have played a role in the ongoing arbitrary detention of Russian activist, opposition politician, and our colleague, Vladimir Kara-Murza.
Kara-Murza is internationally renowned for his advocacy in support of “Magnitsky sanctions,” the name used to describe targeted sanctions on human rights abusers and corrupt actors coined as an homage to the Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who was killed in Russian custody in 2009. Kara-Murza, who is a senior advisor to Human Rights First, was arrested in Russia in April 2022 for condemning the Russian government’s brutal war against Ukraine.
The U.K. sanctions on Kara-Murza’s persecutors came as the latest part of a rare, concerted effort by the four largest jurisdictions that have Magnitsky-style sanctions programs (the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union) to use their human rights sanctions tools to advocate for the release of a sole, if emblematic, political prisoner.
This multilateral campaign provides some insight into how these governments are using their Magnitsky sanctions and highlights the strengths and limits of using sanctions as a tool to secure a political prisoner’s release from an authoritarian government.
The sanctions have been a welcome intervention, helping to keep a spotlight on Kara-Murza while he faces a 25-year prison sentence in the custody of a government that has poisoned him twice. Now, given his deteriorating health, the U.S. government needs to build on these steps and actively seek to negotiate his release.
Choosing Sanctions Targets
The Kara-Murza sanctions have shed some light on how the major Magnitsky jurisdictions choose their sanctions targets, both generally and in the context of Russia’s hardening dictatorship.
Starting late last fall, all four of the jurisdictions have sanctioned Russian judges, prosecutors, and other law enforcement officials involved in Kara-Murza’s case, as well as a so-called expert witness. This reflects the assessment that Russia’s judicial system lacks independence and does not deserve the deference that judges and lawyers typically enjoy.
By contrast, none of the four jurisdictions have sanctioned the police officers who carried out Kara-Murza’s initial arrest on spurious grounds, suggesting their role (in the U.S. context, their contribution to the “serious human rights abuse” of his arbitrary detention) may have been seen as too small.
The U.S. and EU sanctions also targeted a relatively senior Russian official – Deputy Minister of Justice Oleg Sviridenko – suggesting a desire to show that the Russian judiciary’s handling of Kara-Murza’s case flows from broader state policies. The U.K. government had already sanctioned Sviridenko for his role in persecuting Russians under “foreign agent” laws more generally.
The U.S. sanctions represent the first instance in which a single person’s arbitrary detention was clearly the legal basis for Global Magnitsky sanctions, reflecting the tool’s applicability in a wide range of contexts. (The Trump administration briefly sanctioned top Turkish officials for detaining a single U.S. citizen in 2019, but it appeared to hedge its claim of an unjust detention and may have based its action on broader abuses.)
The U.S. sanctions in Kara-Murza’s case also represented a relatively rare use of the Global Magnitsky program against perpetrators of abuses in Russia. The U.S. Treasury Department has almost exclusively used its highly flexible Russia-specific country programs to sanction Russian targets since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, often on the simple basis of their being Russian officials. However, Treasury appeared responsive to the view that using Global Magnitsky in Kara-Murza’s case would resonate politically because of his advocacy for Magnitsky-style sanctions.
Matching Across Jurisdictions
Joint action by the four major Magnitsky jurisdictions reflects the obvious injustice of Kara-Murza’s persecution and his prominence in international human rights advocacy circles. The four jurisdictions have only rarely taken similar coordinated action, including against Chinese officials involved in grave abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang and Russian officials violating the rights of politician Alexei Navalny.
While the U.S. government has often been first among the Magnitsky jurisdictions to impose sanctions on a given perpetrator, Canada was the first to act in Kara-Murza’s case, in November 2022. This was surprising, since Kara-Murza has British citizenship and is a U.S. resident, but still welcome, since each of these jurisdictions should be able and willing to spur their peers to act.
Since then, the United States has sanctioned six individuals for abuses against Kara-Murza, the U.K. sanctioned 11 (in two actions), and the EU sanctioned 10 (also in two actions). Canada’s sanctions targeted 23 individuals for participating in human rights violations against “opposition leaders, including Vladimir Kara-Murza, Alexey Navalny, and other Russian citizens,” and at least 20 of those appear to have been involved in abuses against Kara-Murza.
The differences in targets across the four jurisdictions seem to reflect a combination of policy emphasis and legal constraints. For example, the EU sanctions initially emphasized Kara-Murza’s arbitrary detention but were later complemented with sanctions against a Russian official involved in one of the two attempts to assassinate him with poison in 2015 and 2017.
The U.S. government, on the other hand, generally will not impose financial sanctions for abuses that took place more than five years ago and has not sanctioned specifically for Kara-Murza’s poisonings. (However, just this week when the Treasury Department sanctioned four Russian officials for their roles in Navalny’s 2020 poisoning, it noted that one of the four had also been involved in surveilling Kara-Murza.)
Responsiveness to Input
The sanctions in Kara-Murza’s case also show how a Magnitsky jurisdiction can be responsive to input. More than four months passed between Human Rights First’s submission of a formal sanctions recommendation and U.S. action, and nine months after The Washington Post’s editorial board first called for such action. In the world of sanctions policy this is relatively fast. The individuals whom the U.S. and other governments targeted overlapped to a significant degree with recommendations from civil society organizations.
U.S. action in Kara-Murza’s case also clearly owed much to high-level congressional engagement. In September 2022 Senators Bob Menendez and Jim Risch formally invoked a provision of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act that required the Biden administration to determine whether Russian officials had committed certain sanctionable abuses against Kara-Murza and to report on whether President Biden would impose sanctions.
At a hearing in January 2023, Sen. Menendez secured confirmation from a senior State Department official that Magnitsky sanctions would be forthcoming “in short order.” Although the sanctions ultimately were not imposed within the 120-day timeframe that the law prescribes for responding to such congressional requests, the efforts of these senators and other members of Congress appeared to help prompt action from the administration.
Impact of Sanctions
The impact of Magnitsky sanctions depends on the context. In Kara-Murza’s case, the targeted individuals may not have assets abroad that the Treasury Department can freeze, but the sanctions help stigmatize the officials who are complicit in a serious abuse of human rights. These sanctions have helped sustain attention and generate public commentary about Kara-Murza’s case. Plus the fact that one of his jailers was previously sanctioned in the death of Sergei Magnitsky served to highlight the danger that Kara-Murza and other Russian political prisoners face while in prison.
Perhaps most importantly, we hope these sanctions will encourage the sanctioning governments to have a deeper investment in Kara-Murza’s fate. Given his deteriorating health, time is not on his side, and it is urgent that these governments use other tools as well to hold his persecutors accountable and ensure his freedom.
For its part, the United States has still not made a formal determination that Kara-Murza is “wrongfully detained” under the Robert Levinson Act, a step that would direct the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to include his case as a priority in hostage-release negotiations with Russian authorities.
Along with nine other civil society groups and more than 70 members of Congress, we urge the Biden administration to take this step to securing our colleague’s freedom and reuniting him with his family.