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Russian opposition leader continues to serve time years after Arizona speech

Vladimir Kara-Murza spoke at an event hosted by the McCain Institute for International Leadership at ASU and the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law before his imprisonment

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Pedestrians walk past the ASU Barbara Barrett and Sandra Day O’Connor Washington Center, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019.

Being poisoned twice by the Russian government didn't stop the 41-year-old Russian journalist, historian and political dissenter from taking the floor of the Arizona House of Representatives on March 15, 2022, risking a speech that would put him behind bars a month later. 

Vladimir Kara-Murza, who spoke at an event earlier that day hosted by the McCain Institute for International Leadership at ASU and the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law, called the Russian government a "kleptocratic" and "autocratic" regime that bombed houses, hospitals and schools in Ukraine. 

"Today the whole world sees what the Putin regime is doing to Ukraine," Kara-Murza said to the representatives. "These are war crimes that are being committed by the dictatorial regime in the Kremlin against a nation in the middle of Europe. This is, unfortunately, where all the years of Putin's rule have led us."

A Moscow court would hold those words against him, sentencing Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison for treason, accusing him of spreading "deliberately false information" in Arizona about the war in Ukraine. 

This is the most severe prison sentence since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, triggering public statements from then-Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers and former Gov. Doug Ducey. Former Arizona Rep. César Chávez, who was the vice chairman of the international affairs committee when Kara-Murza spoke, said the sentence was "appalling and sad" in a statement to the Associated Press. 

Kara-Murza's life could be in further danger after the death of anti-Putin dissident Alexei Navalny, as he's feared to be the Kremlin's next political victim. His health is reportedly declining due to the lingering effects of two poisonings in 2015 and 2017.

But how did the opposition leader end up in Arizona to begin with?

Connections to John McCain 

Kara-Murza's ties to Arizona started with his high-profile friendship with the late Republican Sen. John McCain. They met in Washington, D.C. and worked together on the Magnitsky Act, which allows the U.S. to impose sanctions on foreign actors or governments who commit human rights abuses. 

McCain referred to Kara-Murza as "a personal hero whose courage, selflessness and idealism I find awe-inspiring." When McCain was battling cancer, he chose Kara-Murza as one of his pallbearers. 

Claire Merkel, who served as the senior director of Arizona Programs at The McCain Institute, said both political leaders shared similar visions about democracy and human rights. 

"Sen. McCain was a great supporter of Vladimir and what he was trying to do," Merkel said. "That willingness to fight for human rights and democracy was a common thread between the two of them. Sen. McCain was a great defender of Ukraine and was very vocal about the Crimean invasion in 2014."

Merkel worked closely with the McCain family for years at the International Republican Institute and during McCain's presidential campaign. She met Kara-Murza for the first time at the Sedona Forum when McCain was still alive, a gathering of leaders around the world held annually by The McCain Institute. 

"He is totally charming. He's a very serious but very optimistic, delightful person to be around," Merkel said. "He is fierce in his belief that a democratic Russia can exist, and (he's) dedicated to his belief that he needs to play an active role in that." 

Merkel was the one who invited Kara-Murza to Arizona on behalf of the Phoenix Committee for Foreign Relations, where she now sits on the board of directors. 

He was later given an audience in the Arizona House of Representatives by Bowers, where Kara-Murza gave the speech that Russia later used against him. 

Merkel said she had dinner with him afterward, where she asked Kara-Murza why he intended to go back to Russia. Kara-Murza told her that he had to do it, saying, "I am a Russian, and the only way we can change Russia is patriotic Russians working to do that."

"He knew, I think, that he was in danger," Merkel said. "He certainly wasn't afraid of it. But he knew, and he went back a couple of weeks later and was immediately arrested."

The speech at the Arizona House

Bowers knew that the Phoenix Committee for Foreign Relations had invited Kara-Murza to speak at their event in Arizona but didn't know him personally. He had talked to PCFR Executive Director Tina Waddington about "having more in-depth conversations with legislators" about "what the world was doing" without organizing trips abroad.

"They talked about that Navalny was imprisoned, and Kara-Murza was someone that might give us some idea of the war (in Ukraine) and Russia and round out the picture that we sometimes miss," Bowers said.

Bowers said he had time to speak with Kara-Murza before he took the floor, and learned about how the Russian political system evolved to exclude opposition voices, a status quo the Russian people didn't necessarily approve. He said he "felt it was like a blessing" to have Kara-Murza as a speaker.

"It helped me appreciate more that there are many people who have sacrificed themselves or have been sacrificed on that altar of war, what I would consider human rights abuse of your own people," Bowers said. "He was very informative, and he was very dedicated and focused. He knew there was a risk of his speaking up."

Kara-Murza's speech was uploaded on YouTube and used against him in his Moscow trial, a proceeding Bowers said was "very sobering." He also said that he received pushback from fellow lawmakers about having Kara-Murza speak at all, saying the state had "plenty of problems here at home." 

"It would be interesting to see how the same people would react if they switched places," Bowers said. "I thought the man was a brave man and still is extremely brave. Anyone who's willing to go talk about that in a foreign country, especially America — playing with a dictator is a serious business. It showed an incredible amount of courage."

Edited by Alysa Horton, Sadie Buggle, Angelina Steel and Shane Brennan

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