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FBI Silent On Lab Results In Kremlin Foe's Suspected Poisoning

Russian opposition activist Vladmir Kara-Murza (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- The FBI has refused to release laboratory results into the suspected poisoning of anti-Kremlin activist Vladimir Kara-Murza last year, frustrating his congressional supporters and deepening the mystery behind his illness.

Amid the official silence from the FBI, Kara-Murza, who has lobbied for U.S. sanctions against Russian officials, now says he is trying to use freedom-of-information laws to access his own test results.

Two U.S. labs -- one affiliated with the FBI -- have tested blood, hair, and tissue samples taken from Kara-Murza after he was hospitalized in Moscow in February 2017, the second time in two years that he was placed on life support with poisoning symptoms in the Russian capital. Two other labs -- in France and Israel -- have also conducted tests, but they were inconclusive.

Kara-Murza, a 37-year-old veteran of Russia’s liberal opposition, says he believes both incidents were deliberate, retaliatory poisonings for his political activism, including his lobbying for the U.S. Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that introduced sanctions for Russians deemed by Washington to be rights abusers.

His Russian doctors diagnosed his illness last year as "toxicity from an unspecified substance."

Kara-Murza, a Russian citizen and legal U.S. resident, has built close ties with members of Congress. With the help of several U.S. senators and at least one U.S. representative who appealed to FBI Director Christopher Wray, samples were provided to the FBI lab following his hospitalization last year, according to people with direct knowledge of the effort.

In discussions with U.S. lawmakers and congressional staff members earlier this year, FBI officials indicated they would consider releasing some of the results of the tests, according to the people directly familiar with the matter. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation publicly.

But for unclear reasons, the FBI later notified members of Congress it would not, these people said -- frustrating those who felt it deserved more urgency. One senator even suggested in a letter to the FBI that the substance that triggered Kara-Murza’s illness may be "classified" by the agency.

An excerpt from the Russian opposition activists' medical report from a Moscow hospital after he fell gravely ill in February 2017. The diagnosis states "toxicity from an unspecified substance."
An excerpt from the Russian opposition activists' medical report from a Moscow hospital after he fell gravely ill in February 2017. The diagnosis states "toxicity from an unspecified substance."

'Small, Imperfect Protection'

Kara-Murza told RFE/RL that he filed a U.S. Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FBI in July in an effort find out what the bureau has learned about his unexplained illness.

He said the FBI also possessed samples from his first suspected poisoning in 2015 and that he had requested "all documents, test results, and internal communications related to me from May 2015."

"Somebody has tried to kill me twice, in Russia, in the past 3 1/2 years," he told RFE/RL. "I just returned back to Russia. I know the risks there, and I think what we are doing is important. If there is anything to protect me, it is a clear and public determination of the causes of the [2015 and 2017] poisonings."

"Not for curiosity's sake, but it could serve as a small, imperfect protection," he added.

Kara-Murza provided RFE/RL with the tracking number of his FOIA request. The agency's website says "potential responsive information" for that case number had been identified and was awaiting assignment to a specialist "for further processing."

Kara-Murza, who resides with his family outside Washington, recently returned to the United States after his first trip to Russia since his hospitalization with poisoning symptoms there in February 2017. He had previously split his time between the United States and Russia.

Kara-Murza declined further comment on the laboratory tests or the involvement of the FBI in the matter, which the agency also declined to address.

"In keeping with our usual policy, the FBI cannot comment on whether or not we are conducting a particular investigation," a bureau spokesperson told RFE/RL.

Sophisticated Toxins

The efforts to access the FBI's conclusions regarding Kara-Murza's illness come amid growing concern about suspected poisonings and deaths involving Russian activists, businessmen, and, most famously, Russian double agent Sergei Skripal.

Skripal and his daughter Yulia were hospitalized after falling suddenly ill in March 2018 in Salisbury, England, and British authorities later determined they had been poisoned with a Soviet-era military grade nerve agent called Novichok.

U.K. investigators examine the site in Salisbury where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found poisoned in March 2018. (file photo)
U.K. investigators examine the site in Salisbury where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found poisoned in March 2018. (file photo)

British authorities later accused two Russian military-intelligence officials of being behind responsible for the attack, which the Skripals survived. A British woman, Dawn Sturgess, died later after accidentally being exposed to a perfume bottle that contained Novichok, authorities say.

In September, Russian opposition activist and publisher Peter Verzilov fell suddenly ill in Moscow. German doctors who treated him said it was "highly plausible" that he was poisoned.

Both Verzilov and Kara-Murza say they believe they were poisoned with sophisticated toxins likely only accessible to Russian security services.

Russia has repeatedly denied accusations of its involvement in poisonings of Kremlin opponents, including that of former Russian security-services officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, who died in London in 2006 after exposure to the radioactive isotope polonium-210.

Kara-Murza's lawyer, Vadim Prokhorov, declined to comment on questions about the U.S. lab tests.

Prokhorov told RFE/RL that Russian investigators questioned Kara-Murza and his wife, Yevgenia, in April as part of a preliminary probe into his suspected poisonings. Because the couple was in the United States at the time, the questioning was conducted by Skype, Prokhorov said.

He added that authorities had yet to provide information on whether a criminal case had been opened.

"We will continue to look into this," Prokhorov said.

Prokhorov previously said he believes investigators renewed their probe as a formality due to the international reaction to the Skripal poisoning.

Kara-Murza fell ill on February 2, 2017, in Moscow and was hospitalized in an intensive-care unit. His wife said later that her husband had suffered kidney failure and was on life support after being placed in a medically-induced coma.

His family said his symptoms were almost identical to those of his near-fatal 2015 illness. An independent toxicology test by a French lab into that suspected poisoning was also inconclusive.

Kara-Murza has worked with former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky's nongovernmental organization, Open Russia, and was also a close associate of Boris Nemtsov, the former Russian deputy prime minister who later became an outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Nemtsov was gunned down not far from the Kremlin walls in February 2015, three months before Kara-Murza suffered his first near-fatal illness.

Immediately after his February 2017 illness, Yevgenia Kara-Murza said that samples of her husband's blood, hair, and fingernails had been sent to private laboratories in France and Israel.

'The Justice He Deserves'

One of Kara-Murza's most vocal proponents in Congress was Republican Senator John McCain, who gave a speech on the Senate floor just days after Kara-Murza fell ill last year. Kara-Murza was a pall-bearer at the funeral for McCain, who died on August 25, 2018.

In a September 22, 2017, letter to FBI Director Wray, inquiring about the status of the investigation, McCain complained about administrative delays, and he pressed Wray to make the investigation a priority.

Vladimir Kara-Murza and the late Senator John McCain in March 2017.
Vladimir Kara-Murza and the late Senator John McCain in March 2017.

McCain also wrote that he believed both illnesses were deliberate poisonings -- and were politically motivated.

"Vladimir...has clearly been the victim of Putin's brutal campaign to eliminate his opposition. Identifying who and how this was done will help Vladimir seek the justice he deserves and will provide a small form of protection against repeated attacks on his life and that of other dissidents," McCain wrote.

A spokesperson for McCain could not be immediately reached for comment.

In March 2018 letter to Wray, Republican Senator Roger Wicker wrote that Kara-Murza's wife had delivered "a sample of his hair, blood, and nails to your lab for further analysis on February 19, 2017."

"I respectfully request your assistance in this matter with official correspondence stating the conclusion of this analysis and your agency's recommendation for Mr. Kara-Murza's future travel," Wicker wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by RFE/RL.

"While the specific substance may remain classified, it is my hope you will be able to clearly articulate the nature of the poisoning and its genesis," he wrote.

Wicker's office has yet to receive a response.

Mike Eckel reported from Washington, Carl Schreck from Prague; edited by Michael Scollon
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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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