Putin critic tells US senators says he narrowly escaped death after mystery poisoning

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2017, 10:34am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 2017, 10:34am

A Russian opposition leader sharply critical of President Vladimir Putin told US lawmakers Wednesday that he narrowly escaped death last month after being poisoned with a substance his doctors still haven’t been able to identify.

In congressional testimony, Vladimir Kara-Murza said his survival shows there are “near misses” in the Russian government’s campaign to silence its political opponents.

He told lawmakers the official diagnosis was “toxic action by an undefined substance.” He said he suffered multiple organ failure and was placed in a medically induced coma for several days after being hospitalised on February 2. The episode was reminiscent of a mysterious poisoning he suffered two years earlier when he nearly died from kidney failure.

Kara-Murza’s appearance before the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee is part of a broader inquiry into what the panel’s chairman, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has called Russia’s “misadventures throughout the world.” Graham is one of a few congressional Republicans to openly criticise US President Donald Trump’s push for closer ties with Russia after US intelligence agencies concluded Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

On Tuesday, this Putin critic feared he would never be forgiven. On Thursday, he was shot in the head

The purpose of the hearing was to make a case for creating a “counter-Russia” account in the US government’s budget, according to Graham. The money would be used to finance and empower countries and organisations “that are fighting back against Putin’s regime,” he said.

“It’s in American taxpayers’ interests that we push back against Putin’s efforts to dismantle democracy throughout the world,” Graham added.

Trump triggered a bipartisan backlash in early February when he repeated his desire to improve relations with Putin during an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly called Putin “a killer.” Trump answered, “We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”

Kara-Murza is the vice chairman of Open Russia, a private foundation run by exiled Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Just a few weeks before his most recent illness, Kara-Murza sent a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that was sharply critical of Putin’s government. The letter, dated January 9, came just before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing. Kara-Murza urged the committee to take his assessment into account when considering Tillerson’s nomination and the “next steps in US-Russia relations.”

Putin’s “nearly generation-long rule has been marked by the dismantlement of the nascent democratic institutions that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Kara-Murza wrote. Most Russian media outlets are “mouthpieces” for government propaganda, he added, and elections are “marred by intimidation and fraud,” making them largely meaningless rituals.

Kara-Murza was a close associate of the murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down in February 2015. In the letter and in his testimony Wednesday, Kara-Murza said the organizers and masterminds of Nemtsov’s murder have not been identified or apprehended.

Russian state media have targeted Kara-Murza alongside Nemtsov for his lobbying in the West, openly calling him a traitor.

Last week, Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian lawmaker who became one of Putin’s harshest critics, was shot dead in a Kiev street. Days earlier, he had warned that he would never be forgiven in Russia.

Kara-Murza has traveled to the US, Canada and eastern Europe, pushing a law that targets Russian officials involved in rights abuses. In 2012, the U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, named for the late Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky. It was a precursor for the worsening of US-Russia relations, which hit a post-Cold War low in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula.