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Putin Opponent's Possible Poisoning a 'Test for the Trump Administration,' Says Senator

Law enforcement officers pass the site of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov's murder on Feb. 28, 2015, on Moscow's Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge. (Valeriy Melnikov/Sputnik via AP)

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers warned Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin should not be given the benefit of the doubt after an outspoken dissident was suffering the symptoms of potential poisoning for the second time since 2015.

Journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, 35, who was a close associate of murdered Kremlin critic and opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, is vice chairman of the pro-democracy group Open Russia. In 2012, Kara-Murza testified before Congress’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in support of the Magnitsky Act human rights sanctions against Russia, named for corruption whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky who died in Russian custody in 2009.

Three months after Nemtsov was shot to death within view of the Kremlin in 2015, Kara-Murza suddenly suffered kidney failure and was in coma. It was determined he had been poisoned, and although he recovered the perpetrators were never caught.

A day after Kara-Murza posted a Facebook tribute to Nemtsov this week, it happened again. His wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza, told the BBC today that the signs and symptoms mirror the previous incident, and the activist “is already on life support and in a medicated coma.”

“The reason is unclear like last time. He’s been active and healthy,” she said. “…He was brought there conscious but was put in a medicated coma and on life support later, because his organs began shutting down like last time.”

Kara-Murza had submitted a letter for the congressional record regarding the nomination of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, detailing the plight of 102 known political prisoners held by Russia, the crumbling of free media and undemocratic elections in the country in which opposition candidates are often barred from appearing on ballots. He did not explicitly take a position on Tillerson, but emphasized the importance of voting senators to understand conditions in Putin’s Russia.

Reaction from Congress to the news of Kara-Murza’s latest illness was swift. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who mentioned the activist’s 2015 mystery illness during Tillerson’s hearing, also said earlier this week on the Senate floor that political dissidents and journalists were being silenced and targeted for murder in Russia.

“Today, it appears one of those targets might be Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has been hospitalized after mysteriously falling gravely ill,” Rubio said. “Vladimir Putin does not deserve any benefit of the doubt here, given how commonplace political assassinations and poisonings have become under his regime.”

“I am praying that Kara-Murza’s condition improves, and I urge the Trump Administration, including Secretary of State Tillerson, to make Kara-Murza’s cause America’s cause, question Russian authorities about this, and ultimately hold Putin accountable if he was targeted by the regime.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Magnitsky Act author, said he was “alarmed” by the news.

“We do not know the details on the cause for this most recent health issue, but it appears to be part of an alarming trend where Russian political opposition are targeted for their work. Vladimir is a courageous advocate for the democratic process and fundamental universal human rights,” Cardin said, adding that the activist’s hospitalization “is a test for the Trump administration.”

“I strongly urge the president and Secretary Rex Tillerson speak out on his behalf and stand up for the principles that we have always championed as a country,” the senator said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was “heartbroken” about the report of his “dear friend and a true Russian patriot.”

“Vladimir has been a leading voice for freedom, human rights and the rule of law in Putin’s Russia. And he has continued to speak truth to power even when doing so has placed his life at grave risk. When our mutual friend Boris Nemtsov was murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin, Vladimir had the courage to return to Russia to advocate for reform,” McCain said. “The United States must draw strength from Vladimir’s example and demand that those responsible are brought to justice.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) noted Kara-Murza’s “deeply alarming” illness appears again to be poisoning, “the preferred method by which Putin’s regime has tried to silence its critics.”

“The world has borne witness to the murders of Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politovskaya, Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Magnitsky, and others who dared to speak out, write, and protest against the erosion of democracy in Putin’s Russia – and those responsible will eventually be held accountable,” he said.

Hoyer added that “Kara-Murza’s possible poisoning only makes the case for tough sanctions against the Russian leadership stronger, and I urge the Trump administration not to reward Putin for his nefarious actions by ending them.”