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POLITICS

Countersanctions. How FSB officers tried to poison Vladimir Kara-Murza

The Insider’s and Bellingcat’s previous investigations proved the involvement of FSB NII-2 officers in poisoning Alexey Navalny and a number of other activists and journalists. This time we provide evidence that the same FSB officers made two attempts to poison Russian politician and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza. As in the case of other poisonings, the “laboratory” staff worked together with the FSB’s Second Service (Service for Protecting the Constitutional System and Combating Terrorism). The FSB head Bortnikov discussed the Kara-Murza case with the head of the FBI during his visit to Washington. After that visit, the FBI refused to publish the results of Kara-Murza's blood tests, despite the court's decision. And in Russia, not only no criminal case has been opened, but also no court decision on dismissing such a case has been issued.

Written by The Insider in association with Bellingcat

ALL CARDS
  • First poisoning

  • Murderers from the laboratory

  • FSB officer with especially delicate assignments

  • How the first poisoning took place

  • Poisoners don't give up

  • Second Poisoning

  • Treatment

  • The disappearance of the samples and the secret meeting of the security services

  • Silence

Politician and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza Jr. has been engaged in opposition activities for more than 20 years. One of his most notable achievements was the preparation and promotion of the Sergei Magnitsky Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012, which prohibits Russian officials responsible for “gross human rights violations” from entering the United States and freezes their financial assets. Kara-Murza promoted the law together with his friend and associate Boris Nemtsov. In 2014, Vladimir Kara-Murza returned from the United States, where he had previously worked for several years, to participate in the creation of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Open Russia movement (the movement was launched in September 2014). And in May 2015, he was poisoned for the first time.

First poisoning

On May 26, 2015, Vladimir Kara-Murza woke up in his apartment on Ovchinnikovskaya Embankment. He lived alone: his wife and children lived in the United States, and Vladimir flew every month to visit his family. Without breakfast, Vladimir went to Beavers and Ducks on Chistiye Prudy around noon to meet with Nikolai Sorokin, head of the Parnas party in the Kostroma region. There Vladimir took food from the buffet and did not eat again that day.

At 14:00, after meeting with Sorokin, he met with an acquaintance of his, Open Russia functionary Mikhail Yastrubitsky, near Park Kultury metro station. Together they headed to RIA Novosti for a meeting with RAPSI editor-in-chief Oleg Efrosinin. At about 3 p.m., the three of them began a video conversation with Mikhail Khodorkovsky at the RAPSI office. “A few minutes later I suddenly felt sick,” Vladimir recalls. “Heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, sweat, vomiting. I went to the bathroom and could barely make it back to the office, holding onto the walls. My coworkers put me on a couch and called an ambulance.”

He was transformed from a perfectly healthy man to a man on death's doorstep in 10-15 minutes. “He was all kind of limp and spoke very slowly. He could not actually move his arms and legs anymore. His eyes kept closing and we had to talk to him all the time in order not to make him lose consciousness,” Yastrubitsky said later.

“The ambulance took Kara-Murza to City Hospital #23, where he was diagnosed with heart failure. Late at night the patient was transferred to one of the best cardiological clinics in Moscow - the Bakoulev Center for Cardiovascular Surgery - where doctors began to prepare him for surgery. However, it turned out there was nothing wrong with Vladimir's heart. The surgery was cancelled, and the doctors told his relatives the next morning that he had been seriously poisoned. After that, Kara-Murza was sent to the intensive care unit at the First City Hospital. The doctors told his relatives that his condition had seriously deteriorated. The key organs - lungs, heart, kidneys, liver and intestines - began to fail. Vladimir fell into a coma.

The doctors told his wife Evgeniya, who arrived in Moscow on May 29, that Vladimir's chances of survival were estimated at about 5%.

Further events were strikingly similar to what happened to Navalny in Omsk. Alexei Svet, the chief doctor at Moscow's First City hospital, said that Kara-Murza “is not transportable” and thus cannot be sent abroad for treatment. He even managed to convince Kara-Murza's father, Vladimir Kara-Murza Sr., that the biological samples taken for testing contained nothing that looked like poison (initially, the journalist's father himself believed no criminal explanation was necessary). Meanwhile, anonymous sources started throwing around the idea that Kara-Murza had allegedly overdosed on antidepressants. In reality, however, the journalist only took citalopram, which could not cause such symptoms, and he never exceeded the dosage. Finally, nearly three hours had elapsed between the moment he left the house and the time the symptoms started – had he overdosed, the symptoms would have started within an hour (Kara-Murza did not have any medications with him).

But for Novichok, for example, when it acts through the skin a lag of two to three hours is the standard time before the first symptoms appear. But back then, in 2015, no one thought about Novichok or looked for it in the blood. However, on May 29, at the request of his relatives, Kara-Murza's biomaterials were sent for analysis to foreign clinical centers - in particular, to the famous French toxicologist Dr. Pascal Kintz at X-Pertise Consulting clinical center. By that time three days had passed since his hospitalization - and yet the tests showed an abnormal excess of at least four elements in his body: copper, zinc, mercury and magnesium (but whether that excess was related to poisoning is not clear).

Kara-Murza stayed in the Moscow hospital for six weeks. When his condition stabilized and Vladimir was discharged, his wife flew him on a medical plane to the United States for rehabilitation. It took a long time to recover, Vladimir walked with a stick for another year. He appeared to have fully recovered only by the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017.

Murderers from the laboratory

During the investigation of the poisonings of Alexei Navalny, as well as the murders of a number of activists and journalists, we managed to establish the real and fake names of the members of the assassination team consisting of employees of the FSB NII-2 (“laboratory”) and employees of the FSB Second Service (the Service for Protecting the Constitutional System and Combating Terrorism).

We discovered that at least three months prior to the poisoning, the FSB poisoners began following Kara-Murza. They followed him to Tomsk, St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, and Kazan. His last trip to Kazan ended on May 24, 2015, that is, less than 48 hours prior to the onset of the symptoms.

The only name that’s connected with each of the four trips is Alexander Samofal. He had already appeared in a previous investigation by The Insider and Bellingcat as one of the FSB officers involved in the poisoning of Nikita Isaev in 2019. Based on his phone contacts, we can assume that Samofal is an FSB Second Service officer and occasionally works with the group of poisoners from the “laboratory.” On at least two trips coinciding with Kara-Murza's travels, Samofal was accompanied by Konstantin Kudryavtsev, the same chemical weapons expert who told Navalny in December 2020 how he cleaned his underwear from Novichok.

The first trip we know of where the poisoners followed Kara-Murza was to Tomsk. Kara-Murza visited it on February 25-27, 2015. As in the other cases we know, the poisoners did not use the same flights as their victim but flew right ahead of him in both directions - landing in Tomsk in the evening of February 24 and departing for Moscow in the early morning of February 27.

It is an interesting coincidence (or not) that the poisoners' first trip together with Kara-Murza coincided with the murder of Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead on February 27, 2015. Boris Nemtsov and Kara-Murza were the two key figures who lobbied for the Magnitsky Act, which exposed Putin's inner circle to sanctions.

Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Kara-Murza discussing the Magnitsky Act
Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Kara-Murza discussing the Magnitsky Act

After Nemtsov's murder, the team of poisoners did not stop following Kara-Murza. On March 22, the FSB followed him to St. Petersburg, where Open Russia was organizing a public lecture for Stanislav Belkovsky. In the end, the lecture was canceled, because the security services made all the venues that had agreed to host it cancel at the last minute. During the trip, Kara-Murza noticed he was being constantly followed, people looking like plainclothes policemen literally stayed on his heels – a situation that is quite normal for opposition figures working in the regions. But apparently, the FSB poisoners had nothing to do with the surveillance (they usually try to avoid detection by their victims). Moreover, the surveillance could have prevented the poisoners from doing their job, since they were not expected to expose their top-secret operation to Center E (a police unit countering extremism) and other security services that monitor the oppositionists' every move. Thus, it may have been the first time that Center E officers saved an opposition activist's life.

Just three days later, on March 25, 2015, Kara-Murza went to Kaliningrad and returned on March 27. A group of at least three FSB officers followed him on another flight. They were Alexander Samofal, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, and Roman Mezentsev, a senior officer in the FSB's Second Service. Mezentsev is a particularly interesting character and should be discussed separately.

Roman Mezentsev
Roman Mezentsev

FSB officer with especially delicate assignments

Roman Mezentsev is the highest-ranking FSB officer of those who traveled with the team of poisoners after their victims. The analysis of his phone calls, received by Bellingcat from two unconnected sources, as well as his flight data show that Mezentsev communicated daily and frequently traveled with Alexey Zhalo, the head of the Second Service Directorate, as well as with other high-ranking FSB and government officials. For example, in September 2014, he flew to Uzbekistan together with two of FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov's closest deputies, namely General Sergei Smirnov and General Alexei Chekhovskikh. Sergey Smirnov was Bortnikov's first deputy and oversaw the Second Service until his retirement in October 2020.

Mezentsev traveled to Kyiv three times as part of an FSB delegation in the company of Alexei Zhalo and FSB deputy director Smirnov at the height of Euromaidan. On February 20, 2014 - the day snipers began shooting at Euromaidan participants - Mezentsev flew in as part of a delegation that included Putin's advisor Vladislav Surkov and Sergey Beseda, head of the Fifth (International) Service of the FSB.

Mezentsev's phone billings also show that he communicated with Colonel Makshakov, deputy head of NII-2 and head of the FSB poisoning program. The pattern of communication between Mezentsev and Makshakov (after incoming calls from Mezentsev, Makshakov proceeded to call his subordinates from the poisoning team - Osipov and Aleksandrov, and then called Mezentsev back) suggests that Mezentsev supervised these poisonings on behalf of the Second Service. We observe a similar pattern of phone calls between Mezentsev and Makshakov on July 27, 2020, just days before the operation to poison Navalny in Tomsk began.

How the first poisoning took place

The fourth trip together in 2015 ended just two days before Kara-Murza's first poisoning. At least two FSB officers, Alexander Samofal from the FSB Second Service and Valery Sukharev from NII-2, accompanied him on a trip to Kazan from May 22 to 24, 2015. During that trip, Kara-Murza was organizing a lecture by the historian Andrei Zubov and at some point discovered that his phone, as well as those of several other lecture organizers, had been blocked. However, as during the trip to St. Petersburg, the team of poisoners was not directly responsible for that kind of pressure.

Judging by the billings available to Bellingcat, Valery Sukharev, born in 1956, is one of the high-ranking operatives of NII-2. During the poisoning of Alexey Navalny in Tomsk (August 10-25, 2020) Sukharev made more than a hundred calls to members of the poisoning team. First and foremost of them was Oleg Tayakin (47 calls and texts), who, as we have previously mentioned, coordinated the poisoning operations from Moscow (and gained notoriety by slamming the door in front of a CNN reporter). Sukharev also communicated with Makshakov (11 times) and dozens of times with Aleksandrov, Osipov, and Kudryavtsev. Since 2008, Sukharev has been eligible for special benefits, usually associated with a government or military decoration. The only other member of the poisoning team with such benefits is Ivan Osipov.

Due to the fact that a lot of time has passed since 2015, the team members’ phone geolocation data of are no longer available. Therefore, it is impossible to trace their movements in Moscow at the time between the return of Kara-Murza from Kazan and the time of his poisoning. But two hypotheses appear to be the most plausible. The first is that the poisoners could not find a suitable moment during Kara-Murza's trips and decided to apply the toxin in Moscow (Kara-Murza lived alone in his apartment, there were no video cameras in the entrance hall). The second one is that they acted in the same way as in the case of Navalny: they applied the poison onto his underwear while Kara-Murza was in Kazan (on the last day of the trip Vladimir was not in his room all day, it was a convenient moment). According to the second scenario, Kara-Murza simply wore a different underwear in Kazan, and he wore the poisoned underwear after he arrived in Moscow. One way or another, if the poisoning substance was Novichok, which takes effect two to three hours after skin penetration, then the contact with the poison took place before he left home, judging by the chronology of events.

Interestingly, Kara-Murza was scheduled to fly to Kaliningrad on May 27 (and would have done so had he not been poisoned on May 26). The FSB people, who followed Vladimir on all previous trips, had not even booked tickets to Kaliningrad. Obviously, they understood in advance what would happen on May 26.

Poisoners don't give up

In December 2015, as soon as doctors cleared Kara-Murza to fly, he returned to Moscow. In April 2016, he made two work trips to the regions: the first one to Irkutsk (April 13-16) and the second one to Tatarstan (April 24 to Naberezhnye Chelny, April 25-26 to Kazan). At that time the poisoners started to pursue him again. Alexander Samofal flew to Kazan from Yekaterinburg, and Sukharev flew to Kazan from Moscow - both on April 25, shortly before Kara-Murza arrived there. They returned to Moscow on April 26, a few hours before Kara-Murza's departure.

The poisoners then followed Kara-Murza on his trip to St. Petersburg on September 8, 2016. On that day, Vladimir was scheduled to stand trial for holding an “unsanctioned rally,” and risked going to jail for 15 days. But the judge acquitted him, and Kara-Murza was able to return to Moscow that same day. A few days before the trial, Alexander Samofal arrived in St. Petersburg and returned to Moscow on September 8, on the same day as Vladimir Kara-Murza.

The poisoners then followed Kara-Murza during his trip to Nizhny Novgorod from November 29 to December 1, 2016, where the Russian premiere of a film commemorating the murdered Boris Nemtsov was taking place. On November 29, Alexander Samofal and Konstantin Kudryavtsev arrived in Nizhny Novgorod. They both left by train on December 1, 2016, just two hours before Kara-Murza headed back to Moscow.

On the eve of the second poisoning, January 31, Kara-Murza took a day-long train trip to Tver, where he screened a film in memory of Nemtsov. He returned to Moscow late at night and spent the night alone in his apartment.

Second Poisoning

On February 1, 2017, Vladimir Kara-Murza woke up in his home. He does not remember whether or not he had breakfast, but in the morning he went to the Mayor’s Office, where at about 11:30, together with Ilya Yashin and Mikhail Schneider, he submitted a notice for holding a march in memory of Boris Nemtsov. From the Mayor's Office, Vladimir went on foot to the Aeroflot office in Petrovka, then back home. At 3pm he met Kirill Goncharov, a Yabloko activist, at the Rukkola cafe in Klimentovsky Lane, spent an hour and a half there, and then went home again. In the evening Vladimir packed his suitcase (he was due to fly to the States the next day for the birthday of his youngest daughter), called Yandex.taxi around 8 or 9 pm, and drove to his wife's parents in Maryino. He had dinner there and went to bed.

He woke up around 4 or 5 in the morning with the same symptoms he had on May 26, 2015. He managed to call his wife in America: she contacted the doctor Denis Protsenko, who had treated Vladimir back in 2015, and he offered to take him to City Clinical Hospital #7. Before things got really bad, Kara-Murza woke up his in-laws and they called an ambulance. Vladimir himself remembers vaguely what happened next. According to him, the symptoms of the second poisoning were exactly the same as before: heart palpitations, shortness of breath, low blood pressure.

Nearly eight hours had elapsed between leaving the house and the sudden onset of symptoms in this case - too long for the effects of any poison we know of. One of the most likely scenarios here is the application of poison onto a toothbrush. Like underwear, items of personal hygiene are a very convenient tool for poisoning because they exclude the possibility of being used by third parties. Kara-Murza took his toothbrush with him that day and brushed his teeth about 3-4 hours before the onset of the symptoms.

Treatment

The doctors of City Clinical Hospital #7 understood that this time they were dealing with poisoning and immediately started resuscitation procedures. The clinical picture was similar: organs failed one after another. But if earlier the doctors had made up various excuses for the press, this time the diagnosis was unambiguous: “the toxic effect of an unidentified substance.”

Curiously, while the doctors from City Clinical Hospital #7 acted promptly and professionally, Chief Toxicologist of the Ministry of Health Yuri Ostapenko reacted in a different manner. Having been approached immediately, he delayed his answer for a week and on February 9 stated that now, a week later, it was already too late to conduct “biological tests” on the patient and that “no toxicological anamnesis existed, except for the patient's suspicions of having been poisoned.” Ostapenko was not embarrassed by the fact that in addition to the “patient's suspicions” there was also a diagnosis by doctors from City Clinical Hospital #7.

Vladimir Kara-Murza’s wife Yevgenia got his blood samples from the hospital. They were taken immediately after his hospitalization (that is, in the morning of February 2). When she and her husband returned to the US two weeks later, FBI agents met them at the airport to get the test tubes with the blood samples.

The disappearance of the samples and the secret meeting of the security services

At first, Vladimir was reassured, saying that the samples would be sent to one of the four OPCW-accredited laboratories in the United States - the Livermore National Laboratory in California. However, the FBI then stopped responding to inquiries. Even when senators, congressmen, and journalists began demanding results, the FBI continued to remain silent - and conveyed its refusals to cooperate by phone, not in writing, as if the organization wanted to leave fewer traces of its unwillingness to cooperate.

Kara-Murza ran out of patience and sued, but so far all he has been able to get is the declassification of some parts of the case file. At the same time, the FBI refused to release about 250 pages due to “consultations with other agencies” (perhaps, referring to the Department of Energy, which has jurisdiction over the accredited laboratories) and another 10 pages due to “national security reasons”. The declassified data contained no indication of the specific toxin detected, only the investigators' conclusions about “deliberate poisoning.” It also appears from the case file that the FBI investigators had in their possession not only Kara-Murza’s blood samples from the 2017 poisoning, but also samples of his biomaterials and clothing from the 2015 poisoning. According to the documentation, those samples had been sent to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, but the test results are classified as well.

Why the sudden secrecy? Perhaps a clue can be found in the few dozen pages of the published case materials. One of the declassified documents states that in late January 2018, some person (name redacted from the document) who had requested a meeting with FBI Director Christopher Wray was to fly to Washington, D.C. It is known that between January 21 and 27, 2018, three key Russian security officials flew to the U.S. - the head of the FSB Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the SVR Sergey Naryshkin and the head of the GRU Igor Korobov. Of the three, Bortnikov is the one who best fits the status of a person who could ask for a meeting with the head of the FBI. The very fact that this meeting is mentioned in the documents within the Kara-Murza case file indicates that his case was discussed at the meeting. If it’s true, the refusal to publish the test results could be part of a deal.

This version is also supported by the fact that the sudden disappearance of the test results did not only happen in the Kara-Murza case. As The Insider previously wrote, the test results of Bulgarian arms dealer Yemelyan Gebrev, poisoned by the GRU in 2015, had previously disappeared in a similar way. After the poisoning, Gebrev sent samples of his biomaterials to VERIFIN, a Finnish laboratory accredited by the OPCW, which managed to identify the class of poison - organophosphorus substances related to military-grade poisons prohibited by the OPCW and subject to destruction. After the poisoning of Skripal, Gebrev decided to conduct additional tests to clarify whether the poison used against him was Novichok. But the Finnish lab suddenly stopped responding to both Gebrev and the Bulgarian prosecutor's office, even though the lab was supposed to have kept both the samples themselves and the raw test data.

Silence

Vladimir Kara-Murza contacted the Russian Investigative Committee on both poisoning cases. Surprisingly, he did not receive any response at all - there is not even a refusal to open a criminal case, which could have been appealed. The Insider and Bellingcat also failed to get any comments from the FSB officers who had followed Kara-Murza.

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