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Politics Russian dissident calls on West to take stand against Putin

Vladimir Kara-Murza, left, is in Ottawa this week for the Canadian premiere of his film Nemtsov, a documentary about the life of his close friend Boris Nemtsov, the late Russian opposition leader.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Western democracies, including Canada, should form a united front against Russian President Vladimir Putin's regime and make it clear that Kremlin interference in foreign elections is unacceptable, says a Russian dissident who has been poisoned twice, allegedly for his political activities.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, chairman of the pro-democracy movement Open Russia, said he would not be surprised if the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, given the Putin regime's history of doing so in other countries, including Ukraine. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is currently investigating possible links between President Donald Trump's campaign and Russia.

"It's very important that members of the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] and Western democracies take a firm stand with regards to potential or actual abuses of the Putin regime and to make it clear that there will not be impunity for such behaviour," Mr. Kara-Murza said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

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He is in Ottawa this week for the Canadian premiere of his film Nemtsov, a documentary about the life of his close friend Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader who was shot dead in front of the Kremlin in February, 2015.

"This film is not about death. It's about the life of one of Russia's most prominent, most brilliant politicians. The man who could have been president of Russia. And that's one of the themes in my film of how history could have been different, not just for Russia but for the whole world," said Mr. Kara-Murza, who directed the film.

He said the making of the documentary was the most difficult thing he has ever done – and that comes from a man who says he has been poisoned twice in the past two years, allegedly for his anti-Kremlin political activities.

The first poisoning took place on May 26, 2015. Mr. Kara-Murza was at a meeting with colleagues when, all of the sudden, he had difficulty breathing, felt his heart racing and began sweating. He was put on life support and was in a coma for three weeks while doctors tried to figure out what happened to him. Tests showed an undefined toxic substance in his body.

It took a year for Mr. Kara-Murza to recover. In an interview with The Globe in March, 2016, he was still using a cane because of nerve damage caused by the poisoning. But just as he started to show improvement, he was targeted again earlier this year.

Mr. Kara-Murza was staying with his in-laws in Moscow on Feb. 2 when he woke up at 4 a.m. with the same symptoms as the last poisoning. He was rushed to hospital to see the same doctor who treated him in 2015 and knew what he was dealing with this time around. But Mr. Kara-Murza was still in a coma for a week. He is currently recovering in the United States.

While Mr. Kara-Murza does not know who poisoned him or how, he is certain he was targeted because of his political activities. He said the timing of the second poisoning was particularly deliberate since he was supposed to be on a plane to the U.S. hours after the symptoms began.

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"If this had happened on the plane, that would have been it. I would not have got off that plane alive."

Mr. Kara-Murza's doctors have warned him against going back to Russia until he is fully recovered. They say he will not survive another poisoning. He has come to terms with the risk he faces and says he won't let it prevent him from returning to Russia in the future.

"There's no better gift we could give the Kremlin than to give up and run away. And we are not going to give them that pleasure."

In the meantime, Mr. Kara-Murza is using his time to pursue his advocacy work outside of Russia. He has teamed up with American-born financier and anti-Putin campaigner Bill Browder to push for sanctions against human-rights abusers in Russia and around the world. The sanctions laws – known as Magnitsky sanctions – are named after Mr. Browder's lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was killed in 2009 after accusing Russian officials of theft.

The United States and Britain have both passed their own versions of a Magnitsky Act, and the Canadian government is on its way to doing so. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced May 17 that the Liberal government will support a Senate bill that would establish Magnitsky-style sanctions.

Mr. Kara-Murza will meet with the Liberals and Conservatives this week to discuss the status of the Magnitsky legislation.

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