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Vladimir Kara-Murza

Volume 731: debated on Monday 17 April 2023

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the trial of Vladimir Kara-Murza.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this urgent question. I share her concerns about the case of Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition politician, journalist and activist, and a British national, who has today been sentenced on clearly politically motivated charges and faces 25 years in prison. His detention is yet another example of Russia’s efforts to shut down dissent over the war in Ukraine and to silence opposition voices.

I pay tribute to Mr Kara-Murza, a champion for human rights who has shown immense courage in speaking out against the aggression of the Russian state. I also want to recognise his wife Evgenia and commend her for her tireless efforts to promote her husband’s cause.

Mr Kara-Murza has on numerous occasions, both in Russia and abroad, set out the facts of Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, an invasion witnessed by the whole world. He has now been convicted of spreading false information about the Russian armed forces and of participating in the activities of an undesirable organisation. On top of this, he is further convicted of high treason. The charges brought against him are symptomatic of the Russian state’s repression and blatant censorship of anyone who dares criticise it.

Mr Kara-Murza is one of over 500 individuals arrested by the Russian authorities for criticising the war in Ukraine. The repression of opposition voices and of those condemning Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is a glaring attempt to control discourse on the matter. His Majesty’s Government condemn the politically motivated sentencing of Mr Kara-Murza and of all those who speak out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I echo the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe in continuing to call for his release.

Politically, the UK has been at the forefront of efforts to pressure Russia to release Mr Kara-Murza. Since his initial arrest in April last year, we have continued to condemn publicly his politically motivated detention and to call for his release. We have raised Mr Kara-Murza’s case repeatedly both with the Russians directly and in international fora, including the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the United Nations. Today, Foreign Office senior officials have summoned the Russian ambassador. They will make it clear that the UK considers Mr Kara-Murza’s detention to be contrary to Russia’s international obligations on human rights.

Mr Kara-Murza’s welfare remains a priority for the Foreign Office and we continue to push for consular access. Diplomatic officials at the British embassy in Moscow have repeatedly attended the court building and, where permitted, the courtroom. His Majesty’s ambassador was present at the court today when the verdict was given and delivered a statement to Russian media and spectators.

Consular officials remain in contact with Mr Kara-Murza’s family and their lawyer to ensure that our actions remain aligned with his wishes. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) that we will continue to raise Mr Kara-Murza’s case at every appropriate moment and to call for his release.

I am disappointed that an urgent question was required today when clearly a statement was in order, but I welcome the fact that the Government have called in the Russian ambassador.

We should be very clear that the sentencing of Vladimir Kara-Murza is a farce. His crime was speaking out against Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine and we should pay homage to his courage in returning to Russia after the renewed illegal invasion to make sure those who do not support Putin’s actions were heard and to marshal those efforts against it.

It is only two weeks since the Foreign Affairs Committee released our report on state hostage taking entitled “Stolen years”. In it, we made it very clear that, should a British national be arbitrarily detained and sentenced, it is vital that the British Government speak as loudly as they can to ensure these individuals are kept as safe as possible.

So my ask today of the Government is as follows. First, will they set out in more detail how they are working to secure Mr Kara-Murza’s release? They have recognised this is arbitrary—we should therefore be working to get him out. Secondly, how are we demanding that he gets the medical care he deserves? Under Russian law, the condition he has as a result of the two failed poisonings against him should mean he cannot be held in a Russian prison—so under Russian law he should not be being held. Thirdly, will we sanction the 29 individuals responsible for him being held—not the two already sanctioned because of Magnitsky and their efforts to help murder him, but the 29 responsible for Kara-Murza being held? Finally, will the Minister call for all British nationals to return home? It is not safe any more to remain in Russia.

I put on record that this House feels very strongly about the way in which British nationals are having their nationality weaponised against them. Today the hearts of all in the House go out to Vladimir and his family. We hope the Government will show the same commitment that those on the Back Benches have to get him home.

I thank my hon. Friend for the trenchant way she spoke on behalf of the whole House. The Government agree with pretty much everything she said.

The trial was conducted behind closed doors. No diplomats or observers were allowed in. The defence was not allowed proper time to prepare and was refused permission to examine witnesses. My hon. Friend asks about the action we are taking. The Russian ambassador has been summoned to the Foreign Office and is expected to arrive shortly. We will be looking specifically at the issue of the healthcare and medicine that is available. As she said, Mr Kara-Murza was poisoned in 2015 and 2017. We also summoned the ambassador on 6 April and a note verbale—our third—has gone out today, which seeks consular access.

On sanctions, I make it clear to my hon. Friend that, under the Magnitsky propositions, we have already sanctioned both the judge and the jailer because of their involvement in that case, and I have instructed officials to investigate the possibility of sanctioning everyone who was involved in the trial. We expect, within the next week, to come forward with a package of further measures in that respect.

I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for submitting this urgent question and you, Mr Speaker, for granting it.

We are deeply disturbed and horrified by the sentencing today of Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison. His only fault appears to be having had the bravery and courage to speak the truth about Putin’s criminal regime and the illegal and barbarous war against the people of Ukraine. The actions we have seen today are simply those of a regime that fears that its own people will come to learn the truth about their Government’s actions.

I too met Evgenia Kara-Murza recently and was overwhelmed by the incredible resolve of both her and her husband. She told The Sunday Times this weekend that she was “baffled” by the UK Government’s apparent lack of support. My greatest sympathies are with her and her brave family today. We have particular responsibilities to Vladimir, as a dual British citizen, yet his family apparently do not feel that has been provided. Indeed, Bill Browder described the Government as “negligent” in dealing with his situation. Vladimir is a patriot who has worked relentlessly, at great personal risk, for a democratic Russia free of the tyranny extolled by Putin and his regime of criminals. The actions of the Government in the coming days will be critical in securing his safety and wellbeing.

I have three questions. First, at least 31 Russian officials have been directly involved in the false prosecution and imprisonment of Vladimir. Can the Minister tell the House or publish a full list of how many of them have actually been sanctioned? The Canadians and the Americans appear to have sanctioned all those responsible. Have we done so? If not, why not? Secondly, he spoke about Vladimir’s wellbeing. There have been attempts to poison him twice. Those involved in his incarceration have a dark record and there is a real risk to his health. What assurances have we received? Lastly, how many times did Ministers raise the case publicly or privately? I was deeply concerned that, before the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), did not even appear to be briefed on the case when answering questions from the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns). What consular support has Vladimir been permitted or provided with? Have the Foreign Secretary or Ministers spoken to his family today or in the last week?

We stand firmly alongside Vladimir and all those who seek a free and democratic Russia, and who expose the truth of Putin’s barbarous regime.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I believe the Government have been extremely strongly supportive during this appalling trial and the events that have taken place. He asks me about the 31 officials involved in the trial and what steps the Government are going to take, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns). As I have told him, I have instructed officials to investigate the possibility of sanctioning everyone involved in the trial. We will report back on that in due time.

The hon. Gentleman asks for an assurance on Vladimir Kara-Murza’s health and mentions the two previous poisonings, in 2015 and 2017. The ambassador has been summoned—he should be arriving at the Foreign Office any moment—and the issue of Vladimir Kara-Murza’s health will be right at the top of the agenda.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield, and his appearance in front of the FAC. I should make it clear that he is not the Minister responsible for this specific matter. The Minister responsible, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), is very much seized of all the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Vladimir Kara-Murza is a former journalist and one of 22 journalists currently imprisoned in Russia, including Evan Gershkovich of The Wall Street Journal. Can he update the House on the efforts being made to obtain the release of Mr Gershkovich, and will he look at introducing targeted sanctions on all those involved in the persecution of journalists in Russia?

As my right hon. Friend will know, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the British Government have been heavily involved in taking action through a variety of different means, including conferences to try to protect the rights of a free press and journalists around the world. On the case that he raised, I will write to him imminently to give him an up-to-date answer, and I will make the letter available to the House. On his overall point, we seek every way we can to stand up for a free press and open journalism, and to bear down on states that do not respect the important role that a free press play.

Let’s face it: Russia does not have a criminal justice system of any kind; it has a cruel and arbitrary punishment scheme for those who disagree with Vladimir Putin. As with Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny, it is probably Putin’s intention that Vladimir Kara-Murza dies in prison. We need to do everything in our power to ensure that that does not come to pass, including making sure that Putin does not win in Ukraine.

I worry about the Government’s reaction because, in November last year, the Europe Minister, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), said in a written parliamentary answer that the Government had already looked at the sanctions that Canada introduced in this respect, but they still have not done anything. Months have passed and only now does the Minister come to the Dispatch Box to say that he has told Ministers to start looking at it. That is not good enough. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), to whom he referred earlier, is the consular Minister—surely, every single Government Minister should know each and every one of these cases when they appear in public, as they are at the top of our list. Much as I like the Minister who is at the Dispatch Box, as he knows perfectly well, we all just want the Government to put some welly into this issue, and not always wait until the Russians make the first move.

The hon. Gentleman slightly over-chides my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield. What the hon. Gentleman said about the trial was absolutely correct—I set out in my first response the key points where natural justice was clearly totally denied. He is quite right about that. He asked about the danger that Kara-Murza will die in detention. Clearly, that is very real, which is why the ambassador was summoned on 6 April and is being summoned again today. At today’s meeting, the issue of his health will be specifically addressed.

On the issue of consular relations, let me make it clear to the House that under the Vienna convention on consular relations, there is no clear policy on dual nationals and on which takes precedence. There is a bilateral agreement from 1965 between the Soviet Union and the UK that talks about nationality being determined by the sending state. We are looking to see whether there is any extra leverage that we can gain through international law to pursue the point that the hon. Gentleman raised.

My right hon. Friend talks about seeking out and sanctioning the individual officials, but this is an action of the Russian state, not of individuals. Since the Ukraine war, just the major countries in Europe have expelled between 27 and 45 diplomats each. Is that not a measure that we should look at?

As ever on these matters, my right hon. Friend makes an interesting and important point. We have to balance the national interest in how we pursue our diplomacy, and we keep these matters under review. In view of his comment, I will take another look at the issue that he has raised.

There is a lot of agreement across the House that Mr Kara-Murza is a hero and deserves our support. He is not the only person languishing in one of Vladimir Putin’s jails under trumped-up charges—Russia does not have a judicial system that is worthy of international respect or credibility—but he is a British citizen, which means the UK Government have specific obligations to him. I hope the Minister takes the criticism as constructive—the House expects to see more action going forward and more support than his family think he has received.

Hopefully, I will make two constructive suggestions. Mr Kara-Murza was instrumental in the creation of the Magnitsky sanctions regime in the United States, so it would surely be a fitting tribute to use that architecture to target the people who have persecuted him. I appreciate the Minister will not speculate on future sanctions, but he will have universal support if they happen in due course.

On Russia’s involvement in international organisations, this issue cannot pass without consequence. I participated in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe parliamentary assembly in Vienna recently, where the Russian delegation made a mockery of proceedings. We need to be more vocal in our opposition to Russia’s participation in and abuse of the international legal order, because it is clear we are dealing with a pariah state and a pariah regime that should be treated as such.

In respect of the points he raised early in his contribution, we will look at everything. Of course, the Magnitsky legislation, which many of us were heavily involved in getting through the House, is a very significant piece on the board, which we should always use whenever we can.

In respect of removing Russia from the credible international architecture, which the hon. Gentleman suggested, we led the move to remove Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council, so he may rest assured that we are alert to such opportunities.

A few years ago, people saw no continuity between the cold war Soviet Union and present-day Russia, but what would one expect from a state run by a KGB gangster like Putin? I remind the House of the memoirs of a man called Anatoly Marchenko—“My Testimony”, published in 1969—who died in a Soviet jail in 1986. He, like Navalny and Kara-Murza, exposed himself to indefinite imprisonment to show up the nature of the then Soviet state. Can we, at least, stop downplaying Russia as an “authoritarian” regime, and instead speak the truth and say that it remains a totalitarian state, run by a KGB gangster?

My right hon. Friend brings to bear considerable experience of these matters. He speaks with great wisdom. What he says about Anatoly Marchenko, who died in 1986, is absolutely right. We should all pay tribute to the extraordinarily brave people in repressive regimes who stand up for human rights and justice, on behalf of themselves and their fellow citizens.

I first became aware of Vladimir Kara-Murza when I was the director of the British Council in St Petersburg, from 2005 to 2008. Since I came to this place, I have got to know him and I am truly honoured to call him a friend. The last time I met him here in Parliament, I begged him not to go back to Russia, but he said to me, “Stephen, I’m a patriot. I believe that my country will, one day, be free, and I have to campaign and fight for the values that we hold dear.” Of course, we know what has happened since then, but I believe that his voice will continue to influence and build a better future for Russia, Ukraine and beyond.

I am baffled by the fact that, although Kara-Murza is a British citizen, it is countries such as the United States, Canada and Latvia that have stepped up to the plate and sanctioned the 29 officials involved in the monstrous persecution of Vladimir, yet the UK Government have sat on their hands. Will the Minister try to shed some light on why that it is? Why, when a British citizen is languishing in a jail in Russia, have other countries taken action on sanctions but our Government have not?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the early part of his question. His personal knowledge—and not his alone—of Mr Kara-Murza has clearly percolated across the House. Mr Kara-Murza’s bravery, courage and determination are an inspiration to us all. It is clear that his voice will continue to influence us greatly, as the hon. Gentleman says.

On sanctions, I really cannot add anything to what I have said, which is that officials are looking at the possibility of sanctioning everyone involved in the trial. We will report back in due course when we have determined whether that is possible.

Like the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), I regard Vladimir Kara-Murza as a friend; we have had him here on a number of occasions to speak to the Council of Europe delegation. This is a travesty of human rights. As Russia is no longer part of the Council of Europe and no longer under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, how will we ensure that our view of human rights applies in this case?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of the Council of Europe; I congratulate him and his colleagues on the work that the Council of Europe has done on this case. I can assure him that we will do everything we can to ensure that Mr Kara-Murza is freed as swiftly as possible. Together with our international allies and like-minded nations, we will do everything we can to bear down on Mr Kara-Murza’s case and on the other cases that so disfigure the reputation of Russia.

As is often the case on these issues, this House is clearly speaking with one voice—not only in utter condemnation of what has happened to Vladimir Kara-Murza, but in frustration that the Government could, and possibly should, have acted earlier.

Mr Kara-Murza is a member of the Lib Dems’ sister party Yabloko, some of whose activists I spoke to this morning. They are desperately concerned about his physical condition and are worried that he will die in detention. We need to take that concern seriously. They also say that he is not an enemy of Russia; he is a person who wants people to live better and in freedom. I was disheartened to hear that some of those activists are now considering going into hiding, thereby removing the last opposition party in Russia. Will the Minister join me in expressing solidarity with all those brave activists who have worked with Mr Kara-Murza?

Will the Minister also give us a timeframe for reporting back to this House on sanctions? It is long past time, and I hope that the frustration of the House is clear.

In answer to the hon. Lady’s final point, we will report back as soon as we are able to do so in the normal way. I completely understand her frustration, which we all share. She is quite right to say that Mr Kara-Murza is not an enemy of Russia: he is standing up for freedom, democracy and peace in Russia, and we are all determined that his voice will be heard.

Following the shocking sentencing of Vladimir Kara-Murza in Russia, which pretended to be a judicial process but frankly looked more like a circus act, will my right hon. Friend confirm not only that the 29 people who have been involved so far will be looked at, but that any prison guard, warder, doctor or Russian civil servant who causes harm to Mr Kara-Murza before his release will be subject to harsh sanctions?

My hon. Friend is a distinguished lawyer and the whole House will have heard his analysis of the bogus trial that has taken place. In respect of sanctioning, we will look at every possible opportunity in the way I described earlier.

Diolch, Madam Deputy Speaker. The UK Government’s press release in response to today’s sentencing of Mr Kara-Murza mentions the investigative work of the UN Human Rights Council’s rapporteur on internal oppression in Russia. Will the Minister update the House on the work of the rapporteur, on the UK Government’s engagement with the rapporteur and on what he hopes the outcome of the rapporteur’s work will be?

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we are a leading member of the United Nations, we look very carefully at the work in which the Human Rights Council is engaged all the time, and when there is anything to say we will of course report it. The hon. Gentleman may rest assured that through that avenue we are exerting every pressure that we can.

I thank the Minister for his answers. I think it vital for the message of a united voice from Members in all parts of the Chamber to be sent today. Perhaps we cannot always change things in the way we would like to, but I think it important for the House to voice its opinion democratically, and I am pleased that the Minister has done so this afternoon.

The sentence handed to Vladimir Kara-Murza is a sign that the Russian authorities are determined to silence critics of Putin’s regime and eliminate any threats to their system. We must, I believe, do all that we can to come together, and, more important, protect those who expose the criminality of the Russian Government. What steps will the Minister take to work with counterparts in western states to ensure that we safeguard those who are being faced with the brutality of the Russian state?

As usual, the hon. Gentleman speaks with both wisdom and concern. Of course we will seek every way possible to protect whistleblowers. As for his question about our working with others, he may rest assured that we will take every possible step to prosecute the important issues about which he and I care so much.