Rising Fear: The Elimination of Russia’s Activists at Home and Abroad

Timeline of Russian Assassinations

Three months after Russian opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov was murdered in Moscow, his colleague and friend, Vladimir Kara-Murza awoke today from a near week-long coma after being hospitalized as a result of a suspected poisoning in Moscow. Ventilators and life support kept him alive after his major organs failed over the weekend.

In addition to being a journalist and leading organizer for the Russia pro-democracy opposition, Kara-Murza has actively lobbied western nations to impose targeted sanctions against Russian human rights abusers and adopt Magnitsky legislation. The legislation is named so in honour of a Russian anti-corruption crusader, Sergei Magnitsky, who was imprisoned after he exposed a massive fraud committed by Russian government agents and eventually died from ongoing torture and neglect.

In late 2012, Kara-Murza appeared at a Canadian Parliamentary hearing on Russian human rights where he asked Canada to help protect Russian activists by placing targeted sanctions against Russian human rights abusers.  He told the Parliamentary subcommittee on Human Rights that “there are no domestic legal mechanisms for Russians to defend themselves against such [human rights] abuses.” And in a piece he co-authored with Boris Nemtsov, he wrote that “Canada has an opportunity to lead — just as it has led on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – by adopting the Magnitsky legislation.”

It is now Kara-Murza who nearly lost his life and whose dire condition is the latest in a long string of similar situations connected to the current Russian regime.

In the late summer of 2004, Russian activist-journalist Anna Politkovskaya was poisoned on a flight while travelling to southern Russia city of Beslan to cover the siege of a school by Chechnyan separatists. She later wrote that: “The plane takes off. I ask for a tea…. At 21:50 I drink it. At 22:00 I realise that I have to call the air stewardess as I am rapidly losing consciousness.”

When she woke up later in a hospital, Politkovskaya was told by a nurse that she had been poisoned and that “all the tests taken at the airport have been destroyed – on orders ‘from on high’ by the doctors.” She was murdered in 2006 by gunmen who fired four point-blank shots at her as she entered the elevator in her Moscow apartment building.

The Putin government’s targeting of activists isn’t just limited by Russia’s borders. A month after the Polikovskaya murder, a former FSB (the successor organization to the KGB) agent turned whistleblower, Alexander Litvenenko, laid dying inside an isolation chamber in a London hospital after drinking radioactive tea.

Litvenenko narrowly escaped to the UK after exposing corruption within the FSB and the Kremlin’s involvement in a 1999 apartment bombing that killed nearly 300 people.

Toxicology reports later revealed that Litvenenko had been poisoned with an ultra-rare radioactive substance called polonium-210; a toxin so incredibly radioactive, that Litvenenko’s coffin had to be lined with lead to prevent contamination. The sole producer of Polonium-210 in Russia is Russia’s state owned, Rosatom, which happens to own one of Canada’s largest uranium producers, Uranium One.

something was mentioned about a poison, but I didn’t know. I did not pay any attention to it, other than I felt sick – Canadian MP Irwin Cotler

Cases of suspicious poisoning aren’t limited to Russian citizens. Former Canadian Justice Minister and Montreal MP Irwin Cotler, fell violently ill during a 2006 visit to Moscow. Cotler represented Soviet dissidents Natan Sharansky and Andrei Sakharov and has been a leading international advocate calling for justice for Russian anti-corruption activist, Sergei Magnitsky.

Boris Nemtsov (left) and Irwin Cotler (right) in Ottawa, February 2012. Photo: UpNorth
Boris Nemtsov (left) and Irwin Cotler (right) in Ottawa, February 2012. Photo: UpNorth

Cotler had been dining in a Moscow restaurant in June 2006, with Windsor MP Joe Comartin. Later in his hotel room, Cotler began vomiting blood. When he called the front desk for a doctor, a cleaner was sent instead. After he had been taken to a private hospital, no diagnosis was given but Cotler told the CBC later that “something was mentioned about a poison, but I didn’t know. I did not pay any attention to it, other than I felt sick”.

Instead of intimidating him, Cotler stepped up his advocacy work for Russian activists. In 2012, he organized the hearing on Russian human rights at which Vladimir Kara-Murza testified.

In the days following the murder of Boris Nemtsov, earlier this year, Cotler introduced a Parliamentary resolution – which was unanimously passed- asking for Canada to adopt Magnitsky-Nemtsov legislation, imposing Canadian visa bans and asset freezes on Russian human rights abusers. The same resolution passed unanimously in the Senate in May.

While the Canadian Parliament has unanimously expressed its support and despite the Kremlin’s escalating repression against Russian human rights, pro-democracy, environmental and gay rights activists no legislation has been passed in Canada.

The United States adopted Magnitsky legislation in 2012. Individual European states have passed similar legislation and resolutions.

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