The world does not yet know exactly what happened in Alexei Navalny’s final hours. We do know that he was poisoned with a nerve agent in 2020, then after returning to Russia to continue his public opposition to Vladimir Putin and his regime, was immediately arrested and spent years isolated in abusive conditions in prison. His death last month in a remote Russian penal colony was almost certainly an assassination.

Navalny left a legacy of courageous advocacy against corruption and in favor of a free Russia. He also left behind a large number of fellow imprisoned activists whose lives are in grave danger.

There are lamentably too many political prisoners in Russia’s jails to name here. One who faces perhaps the greatest risk is our colleague, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a politician, journalist, and historian who has advised and advocated for the human rights organizations that we lead, the Free Russia Foundation and Human Rights First, respectively. The U.S. government imposed a handful of new sanctions in connection with Navalny’s killing. We believe the United States also must urgently act to prevent the killing of another important voice for democracy in Russia: Vladimir.

Like Navalny and others, Vladimir has faced shocking persecution from the Russian government for his advocacy, including poisonings in 2015 and 2017 that investigators have linked to the Russian intelligence services and to Navalny’s poisoning. Vladimir barely survived those attacks.

It is not hard to see why the Kremlin has targeted him. He forcefully condemned the Putin government’s invasion of Ukraine, just as he opposed its repressive policies at home. Like Navalny, when he returned to Moscow in April 2022, he was quickly arrested. In a sham trial, he was convicted of “high treason” and sentenced to 25 years in prison. No opponent of Putin’s war has been given a longer prison term.

Vladimir has managed to continue writing in prison. He urges opposition to Putin and his war in Ukraine, and he seeks to hold the Russian government to account for failing to investigate his poisonings. But under harsh conditions and without proper medical care for polyneuropathy, a nerve disease he has suffered since the poisonings, a quarter-century in the hands of his persecutors amounts to a death sentence for him – even more clearly after Navalny’s death.

U.S. diplomacy has secured the release of many Americans in recent years, including three from Russian custody since February 2022, and, as Vladimir himself often observed, during the Cold War the U.S. government played an important role in helping negotiate the release of Soviet dissidents. Negotiating for Vladimir’s release would fit with both these traditions. In addition to being a modern dissident, Vladimir is a legal permanent resident of the United States. For more than 10 years, he has divided his time between Virginia – where his wife and three children, all U.S. citizens, live – and his native Russia. The Kara-Murza family’s home-state senator, Tim Kaine, and representative, Jennifer Wexton, have called for the Biden administration “to immediately engage with the Russian government in order to secure his release.”

Hostage diplomacy can be unsavory, and Congress has created a legal and policy framework for when and how the U.S. government should pursue such negotiations for U.S. citizens or residents. Vladimir’s case meets the criteria: most critically, the U.S. State and Treasury Departments have recognized that he is being arbitrarily detained for exercising his rights; the Russian judiciary that sentenced him is not independent; and U.S. engagement is almost certainly necessary to secure his release.

Given these facts, we and other organizations that have worked with Vladimir over the years have been urging Secretary of State Antony Blinken to use his authority to find that Vladimir is indeed “unlawfully or wrongfully detained.”  That conclusion is needed to refer Vladimir’s case to the U.S. government’s hostage-affairs envoy, Roger Carstens, and it would signal to the Russian government that the United States is invested in his fate.

Of course, when it comes to Russian-held political prisoners, the bigger picture includes U.S. citizens whom the Kremlin also has detained. Many of them, including the journalists Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal and Alsu Kurmasheva of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, face patently trumped-up charges. Blinken recently designated Gershkovich as “wrongfully detained by Russia,” and advocates for Kurmasheva, including members of Congress, are seeking the same determination for her.

Energetically seeking Vladimir’s release as well is the right thing to do and would reflect a serious American commitment to protecting political prisoners abroad. Last month, citing Navalny’s killing, the organization Freedom House organized a letter that we joined asking President Joe Biden to include Vladimir as an additional focus of any negotiations with Russia on prisoner releases. Especially after Navalny’s killing, the United States should provide moral leadership by helping protect voices opposing the human rights-abusing Putin regime and advocating for freedom in Russia.

The fate of democracy in places where it is under brutal attack depends on supporting those who are willing to fight for it. Even knowing that a fate like Navalny’s might await them, Vladimir Kara-Murza and other activists have carried on that fight in Russia at great personal peril. They must survive, and the United States must do its part to help.

(Authors’ note: Vladimir Kara-Murza was vice president of Natalia’s Free Russia Foundation from 2019 to 2021, and is a senior advisor to Michael’s Human Rights First.)

 IMAGE: Jailed Russian opposition figure and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is serving a 25-year sentence on charges including treason for criticism of the Ukraine offensive, appears in court with a video link from his prison for a hearing in the case against inaction of the Investigative Committee of Russia on his poisoning, in Moscow on February 22, 2024. (Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)