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How safe are other Kremlin critics held in Russia's prison system?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

First, though, to a question prompted by the death last week of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. How safe are other Kremlin critics still being held in Russia's prison system? Among the most prominent, Vladimir Kara-Murza, former journalist, pro-democracy activist and victim, he told me, of two poisoning attempts by people connected with Vladimir Putin. Here's part of our 2017 conversation.

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA: The way this toxin or this poison works is it shuts off organs one by one, one after another. So when doctors start treating something, let's say the heart, about half an hour later, something else shuts down. So they start treating, say, the kidneys, then the liver shuts down, then the lungs.

KELLY: Kara-Murza recovered, returned to Russia to continue his opposition work, was arrested and sentenced two years ago to 25 years in prison over his criticism of the war in Ukraine. Well, we called Evgenia Kara-Murza, Vladimir's wife, to ask how he's doing, and she told me he is currently being held in solitary confinement.

EVGENIA KARA-MURZA: At the end of January, he was transferred to yet another prison colony, still in Siberia in western Siberia, in Omsk. He had been in the strict regime prison colony and was transferred to a so-called special regime prison colony, which is the harshest grade in the Russian penitentiary system. They hold him isolated from everyone. He's still able to see his lawyer, rarely. And he's still able to correspond with us through the prison mail system. And, of course, there is no need, I think, to say that every single letter goes through censorship.

KELLY: When were you actually last able to speak with him?

E KARA-MURZA: The end of last year in December, Vladimir was allowed a 15-minute phone call. And that was the first phone call in over half a year. And we have three kids. So if you divide 15 minutes by three, it means that, you know, every - our kids had five minutes each. And I was literally standing there with a timer because I could not let one kid to speak to his father longer than for five minutes. And, of course, I did not speak to Vladimir myself because I didn't want to take that time away from the kids. I have not spoken to my husband since last summer.

KELLY: I'm so sorry. I saw that Valentine's Day, February 14, was your wedding anniversary, your 20th.

E KARA-MURZA: Yes, it was. And actually, talking about phone calls, Vladimir requested a phone call with me on that day and received an official denial. The prison authorities said that this 20th wedding anniversary was not an exceptional circumstance that would allow such a call.

KELLY: I can imagine - or actually, I probably can't - how you must worry about him every day, every hour. Does that feel heavier now in the wake of what's happened with Alexei Navalny?

E KARA-MURZA: I am absolutely sure that every single family of political prisoners in Russia can now feel the pain and the pain and the misery and the fright of Alexei Navalny's family because we all know that our loved ones are held by the regime of murderers who have been carrying out a war of aggression in Ukraine for two years. And we realize that the Russian authorities today are using very harsh, repressive methods with regard to all those who speak out against the war and against the regime. And those methods include punitive psychiatry, sexual and physical violence, isolation and, yes, these people's lives are in a grave, very grave danger.

KELLY: Mrs. Kara-Murza, I met and interviewed your husband here in Washington. This was back in 2017. He was recovering from what he believed to be the second time that the Kremlin had tried to poison him. He was still not in great health, but he was here. He was in Washington. He could have stayed. I have to ask you, did you support his decision to return to Russia?

E KARA-MURZA: As for the poisoning attacks on him, thanks to an independent investigation by Bellingcat, Insider and Der Spiegel, we know not only the names but the faces of those FSB operatives who had been following my husband before both poisonings. And this is the team - the same team of assassins in the service of the Russian state that was later responsible for the poisoning of Alexei Navalny himself. So I think that we received our answers despite the Russian authorities' continues refusal to open an investigation into these poisonings. And their refusal is quite understandable, of course, because obviously they're not going to investigate themselves. The same happened with the murder of Boris Nemtsov in 2015. The masterminds and the organizers of this crime have not yet been identified by the Russian authorities.

KELLY: So knowing what happened to him, I have to ask again, did you support his decision to go back to Russia?

E KARA-MURZA: My husband is a Russian patriot. He believes that our country deserves better than Vladimir Putin. And as a Russian politician, he believed it his duty to show to his compatriots that they're not alone, to those of our compatriots who chose to stand up and oppose themselves openly to the regime and to the atrocities committed by it. And my husband believes that he has to share the risks and the challenges faced by people back home. This is why he is where he is today.

KELLY: Is there anything you would say today to other members of the opposition in Russia? I suppose both inside Russia and abroad.

E KARA-MURZA: Vladimir Putin thrives on impunity. Vladimir Putin plans on creating this warped image of reality in which the entire Russian population, all 145 millions of Russians, stand behind him in the war. And I believe that what scares Vladimir Putin is a strong response. That is my call on the global community, including those Russian citizens. And I am working with many of them, those civil society groups that carry on, that have been carrying on for two years, courageously fighting the regime and trying to do everything to bring closer the day when the regime in Moscow collapses. And we need the help and support and solidarity of the global democratic community.

KELLY: Last thing, and it's - is there anything you would say to Alexei Navalny's wife, to Yulia Navalny, as someone who must have much more of an idea of what she is going through today than the rest of us?

E KARA-MURZA: My heart goes out to her. My whole heart is breaking for Alexei's family for what they're living through right now.

KELLY: Evgenia Kara-Murza. Thank you so much.

E KARA-MURZA: Thank you very much for speaking with me.

KELLY: Her husband is Russian opposition leader Vladimir Kara-Murza. He is imprisoned in Russia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Karen Zamora
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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