Western governments urged to swap spies for Russia’s political prisoners

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The death of Alexei Navalny has raised alarm among other Russian political prisoners, who fear they could meet a similar fate for challenging the regime of Vladimir Putin.

Activists say Navalny’s death in a remote Arctic prison colony, which his wife Yulia has blamed on the Russian president, has raised the stakes for other jailed dissidents, including those imprisoned under the Kremlin’s repressive laws against criticising the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Friends of some of the most prominent activists are lobbying western governments to release them in swaps for Russian spies which, they say, could be the only chance to get the prisoners out alive.

On Thursday, Navalny’s family said authorities claimed he had died of “natural causes” and threatened to let his body decompose unless he was buried in secret.

“If Putin is ready to kill Navalny, he’s ready to kill anybody,” said William Browder, an investor and Kremlin critic who is campaigning for the release of Vladimir Kara-Murza, jailed for 25 years in 2023 for treason and “discrediting the armed forces”.

Browder said he had urged foreign ministers in a dozen western countries to exchange any Russian prisoners for Kara-Murza and other activists. “The fact that they killed the most important political prisoner elevates the motivation in all western countries to get out the [others],” he said.

Vladimir Kara-Murza laying flowers during the memorial in the memory of Boris Nemtsov on the sixth anniversary of the murder of the politician in 2021 © Mihail Siergiejevicz/SOPA/LightRocket via Getty Images

Kara-Murza is among almost 20,000 Russians arrested for opposing the war since Putin ordered the invasion two years ago, according to independent rights monitor OVD-Info. Politically motivated prosecutions have spiked: OVD-Info counted 732 such cases in 2022, up from 473 the year before.

“This is the culmination of a meticulous assault on Russian civil society. And this assault did not start with the murder of Alexei Navalny,” said Dan Storyev, managing editor at OVD-Info. “This is something that’s been going on for over a decade, a planned and malicious destruction of Russian democracy.”

Though “discrediting the armed forces” carries a maximum sentence of up to seven years, some people face considerably longer sentences under additional charges for treason, which have also spiked since the start of the 2022 invasion. Putin signed a law introducing a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for treason shortly after Kara-Murza was sentenced last April.

In the six years of Putin current term, which he seeks to renew in March elections, more than 10,000 people have been sent to prison on politically motivated charges. Another 105,000 were accused of misdemeanours, according to Russian investigative news site Proekt — a higher total than under Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.

Dissent is currently punished under charges ranging from resisting arrest to economic crimes and spreading fake news — Navalny having been first charged with fraud, then with extremism. Most of these charges carry prison sentences.

Similar to Navalny who ended up in a jail near the Arctic Circle, Kara-Murza was transferred from pre-trial detention in Moscow to a prison colony in Siberia, where he has spent most of his time in solitary confinement. Navalny was also forced to spend long periods of time in isolation.

In a message posted on social media this week, Kara-Murza said he was sure Putin was responsible for Navalny’s death.

“This man has brought death with him for all 25 years of his rule,” Kara-Murza wrote. “Everyone is dying — the bravest, the most sincere, the most passionate. Only this vengeful, cowardly, greedy old man is holding on with his deathly grip, destroying anyone in whom he sees a threat to his power.”

Kara-Murza, who was a prominent supporter of the Magnitsky Act sanctions laws championed in several countries by Browder, is also in poor health after surviving two poisonings in the mid-2010s, according to friends.

Though doctors never established whether he had been poisoned with novichok, the nerve agent used against Navalny in 2020, Kara-Murza developed polyneuropathy — a neural condition that requires rehabilitation treatment he cannot receive in prison.

“His situation is desperate. And so far, he’s two years [into his sentence] out of 25. And I don’t believe he’ll survive another two years,” Browder said.

Though Kara-Murza is a UK-Russian dual citizen, the Foreign Office has refused to entertain talks over a potential swap for fear it could encourage hostage-taking, Browder said.

Leo Docherty, a Foreign Office minister, told MPs this week that the UK “could not and would not countenance a policy of prisoner swaps but of course we continue to make every effort to support [his wife Evgenia] Kara-Murza and to seek the release of Vladimir”.

Other friends of Navalny are worried they could meet a similar fate. Ilya Yashin, who is serving an eight-and-a-half-year sentence imposed in 2022 for discussing evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine on YouTube, wrote in a letter this week that he “understood the risks for myself” after Navalny’s death.

“I’m behind bars, my life is in Putin’s hands, and it’s in danger. But I’m going to keep on going my own way,” Yashin wrote.

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