The wife of jailed Russian-British opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza has accused the Kremlin of trying to “completely break his connection to the outside world” in the same way it is trying to do with Alexei Navalny.
Mr Kara-Murza had spent years speaking out against Russian president Vladimir Putin and has criticised the government’s crackdown on dissent, as well as the war in Ukraine. Criticism of Russia’s invasion is the reason he is currently imprisoned for 25 years on treason charges decried by the international community and likened to a Stalinist show trial.
Evgenia Kara-Murza was told on Monday that he had been moved in an “unknown direction” before it was discovered that he had been transferred to a new, harsher, Siberian penal colony – a short drive from the previous one in the city of Omsk – and placed in solitary confinement in a punishment cell for four months.
Mr Kara-Murza said in a letter published by his wife on Tuesday that the move was punishment for not standing up when a guard commanded him to “rise”, which he said the authorities had deemed a “malicious violation”. He added that he had been sent to a type of punishment cell known by its Russian initials as an EPKT, the strictest form of isolation from other inmates. It is essentially a prison within a prison. He wrote, in a sardonic fashion that Mr Navalny also uses, that the point of the transfer was “so that life doesn’t seem like honey”.
Ms Kara-Murza told The Independent that while she is relieved her husband has been found, she fears his solitary confinement is only going to get more painful. He had also been held in solitary confinement in his previous prison since September 2023.
“He was transferred to another penal colony with a yet stricter regime, called ‘special regime prison colony’,” Ms Kara-Murza said. “It is basically the same style of regime as the one in which Alexei Navalny is being held.
“They are using further and further isolation and intimidation to scare him into silence and to send messages to all of those who would want to follow suit.
“They are going to make it worse for him, more psychological pressure, and then worse again. That is what they do. They want to completely break his connection to the outside world.”
She added: “The level of repression in Russia is rising. Vladimir’s case is evidence of that.”
Mr Kara-Murza suffers from a neural condition after surviving two attempts to poison him, and Evgenia has voiced fears for his life in prison. She told The Independent in November last year about his previous prison: “There is no way he is going to receive the proper medical care in a punishment cell in a maximum security prison in Siberia... I have great concerns for his life. His condition is only going to deteriorate. There is no time.”
British passport holder Mr Kara-Murza is serving a sentence on charges of spreading “fake news” after he gave a speech in 2022 to the Arizona House of Representatives in which he denounced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr Kara-Murza was a close aide to opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in central Moscow in 2015.
He wrote of his new penal colony, IK-7: “Everything is OK with me, I’m clothed, shod, fed and warm, the people here are all fine,” he said.
Last month, Mr Navalny reappeared weeks after his lawyers said he had disappeared within the Russian prison system. He too had been moved to a harsher Arctic Circle prison hundreds of miles from where he was previously held. Such prison transfers can often take weeks.
Mr Kara-Murza was found within 24 hours of his disappearance after his lawyer Maria Eismont received a letter allegedly written by him saying he had been moved.
“I’m deeply concerned for Mr Kara-Murza – a British national imprisoned in Russia for speaking out against the invasion of Ukraine,” Britain’s foreign secretary David Cameron posted on X, formerly Twitter, before Mr Kara-Murza’s location was confirmed. “I stand with his wife.”
Russia has cracked down on dissent for large swathes of Mr Putin’s more than two decades in power. But Mr Kara-Murza and Mr Navalny’s relocations and the harsh sentences they face are part of the Kremlin increasingly tightening its grip over information regarding the Ukraine invasion and dissent more generally. Mr Navalny was already in jail at the time of the invasion and has since had his term extended by 19 years to more than three decades on new charges related to “extremism”.
In the latest such example, a court in Russia sentenced 72-year-old Yevgenia Maiboroda to six years in prison on Monday for posting on VK, Russia’s version of Facebook, about the number of soldiers killed in Ukraine. The prosecutor claimed she was guilty of “political hatred”.
Bill Browder, a friend of the Kara-Murza family who was formerly the largest foreign investor in Russia before being exiled by Mr Putin, accused the Russian autocrat of “publicly torturing” Mr Kara-Murza with the prison move.
“Putin can’t control a country with so many dispersed people, so he has to rule by symbolism,” he said. “He is taking the most high-profile and important political opposition figures and publicly torturing them – this sends a message to those that oppose Putin that this is what happens.”
Ms Kara-Murza said her husband had been moved to this second penal colony because he had been labelled a “consistent violator of the rules of serving his sentence”.
But, she said, “they use this accusation against political prisoners very often for absolutely ridiculous reasons”.
She said, for example, that on two separate occasions, the prison authorities had left with him no option but to break the rules.
She explained, in one instance, how they had left his bed linens several metres from his cell door – instead of outside his door, as per usual – so that he would have to walk out onto the prison floor and break certain rules.
“When a prisoner leaves his cell, he can only hold his hands behind his back,” she explained. “But they didn’t put those linens in front of his door but across a passage. So, Vladimir had to go out of the cell and cross the passage, and then bend down to pick up the linens.
“There was a person there with a camera filming it all, who later said he had violated the rule because he was not holding his hands behind his back after leaving his cell. That was written down as a violation.”
Ms Kara-Murza has not spoken to her husband since last summer. The couple’s three children, she said, are lucky to speak to their father for five minutes every six months.
Asked when she hopes to speak with her husband again, she said: “I don’t think we will be able to hear him for a while. This special regime does not allow for many phone rights.”