Russia announces investigation into alleged attack on Navalny

Opposition leader remains in a coma in Berlin after apparent poisoning

Alexei Navalny speaks to supporters in Ivanovo, Russia, in April 2017. Photograph: James Hill/New York Times

Alexei Navalny speaks to supporters in Ivanovo, Russia, in April 2017. Photograph: James Hill/New York Times

 

Russian police are conducting a preliminary investigation into the apparent poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny following pressure from western governments.

Police in Tomsk, the Siberian city where Mr Navalny spent several days last week before falling unconscious on a flight to Moscow, said on Thursday they had “recovered more than 100 objects that may constitute evidence” from the activist’s hotel room and other places he visited, as well as reviewing security camera footage.

They claimed they had found “no strong or narcotic substances” when retracing Mr Navalny’s steps.

Mr Navalny (44) remains in a coma after being airlifted to Berlin, where doctors said earlier this week tests indicated “poisoning by a substance from the drug class cholinesterase inhibitors”.

The announcement of the investigation, a procedural step short of filing criminal charges, came a day after Russian president Vladimir Putin told Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte he wanted a “thorough and objective investigation into all the circumstances ... to do with Mr Navalny’s hospitalisation”, but “stressed that hasty and unfounded accusations” the Kremlin was behind it were “unacceptable”.

On Thursday, the Russian prosecutor’s office said there were no grounds for a criminal investigation. The Kremlin had previously dismissed calls for an inquiry before doctors established the substance with which he was apparently poisoned.

The seeming shift came after western governments pressured Russia to investigate Mr Navalny’s apparent poisoning.

Russia’s foreign ministry claimed US deputy secretary of state Steve Biegun had said the US would “take measures that would make the reaction of American society to Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election fade in comparison” if Mr Navalny’s diagnosis of poisoning was confirmed.

“The question inevitably arises – whom does this benefit? Obviously not the Russian government,” the Russian foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

‘Empty noise’

German chancellor Angela Merkel and EU foreign chief Josep Borrell also called on Russia to investigate.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded by refusing to mention Mr Navalny by name and dismissing accusations of state involvement in his poisoning as “empty noise”.

The attack is the sixth apparent poisoning of a Russian opposition activist in the past five years. Police refused to investigate all five previous incidents.

Mr Navalny’s family and aides accused the Kremlin of pressuring doctors in Omsk, the Siberian city where the plane made an emergency landing once he fell ill, to delay his evacuation by two days in an attempt to cover up the substance with which he was poisoned.

Doctors and police in Russia claim Mr Navalny’s test results showed no evidence of toxic substances, though his family said they had originally told them he had been poisoned with a “deadly toxin” before abruptly changing tack.

Police also said on Thursday they had begun the probe when Mr Navalny was hospitalised a week ago, though Mr Navalny’s team said their appeals for an investigation had hitherto gone unanswered.

“They should have done it as soon as we filed the appeal. It’s very strange they didn’t do anything before that. Now launch a criminal investigation,” Ivan Zhdanov, head of Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said in a tweet. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020