Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny fights for life after ‘poisoning’

Press secretary says activist may have been poisoned with substance mixed into his tea

Russian opposition politician and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny (centre). Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

Russian opposition politician and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny (centre). Photograph: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA

 

The Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny is in a coma and on a ventilator in a hospital intensive care unit after a suspected poisoning.

“We assume that Alexei was poisoned with something mixed into his tea,” his press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, tweeted. “That was the only thing he drank this morning. The doctors say that the toxin was absorbed more quickly because of the hot liquid. Right now Alexei is unconscious.”

An outspoken critic of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Mr Navalny was returning to Moscow by plane from Tomsk in Siberia when he began to feel ill. The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk and he was taken to hospital. A mobile video shot on the plane showed medical personnel rushing onboard as a man screamed in agony.

Doctors “are currently engaged in the process of saving his life”, said Anatoly Kalinichenko, the deputy head of the hospital where the 44-year-old is being treated. Mr Navalny was unconscious and on a ventilator, Mr Kalinichenko told journalists. He described the opposition leader’s condition as “stable”, declining to give further details.

Even as he lay in a coma in hospital, there were signs of pressure on the opposition leader’s family members and political allies. Mr Navalny’s civil wife and a personal doctor had been barred from visiting him by hospital officials because Mr Navalny, though unconscious, had not given them permission, Ms Yarmysh said.

A person in Moscow watches a video on social media showing Alexei Navalny being carried on a stretcher into an ambulance. Photograph: Sergei Chirikov/EPA
A person in Moscow watches a video on social media showing Alexei Navalny being carried on a stretcher into an ambulance. Photograph: Sergei Chirikov/EPA

Hospital staff had also refused to show them the results of tests that would indicate a poisoning, she said. Meanwhile, investigators who said they wanted to check for medicines or other potential toxins had also seized his belongings, she said.

Pavel Lebedev, a passenger on the flight, wrote on Instagram that Mr Navalny went to the toilet at the beginning of the flight and did not come back. “He started feeling very poorly. They could barely revive him and he’s still crying out in pain,” said Mr Lebedev, who also published a photo of Mr Navalny drinking from a paper cup at the airport cafe before the flight.

Other video published by several Russian news sites showed the opposition leader being wheeled on a stretcher from the plane to an ambulance waiting on the tarmac in Omsk.

Ms Yarmysh drew a parallel with an incident last year in which Mr Navalny had an acute allergic reaction that one doctor said could have resulted from poisoning with an unknown chemical. “One year ago, Alexei was poisoned when he was in jail,” she wrote. “Clearly the same thing has happened again.”

Doctors have not confirmed that Mr Navalny was poisoned, although Mr Kalinichenko said they had received test results and made a diagnosis. The Tass state news ,citing a police source, said investigators were not considering poisoning as a possible cause.

Supporters have indicated that they want to move Mr Navalny abroad for treatment. Ivan Zhdanov, the head of Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said that they could only plan that if his civil wife, Yulia, with whom he has two children, were given their medical documents by the hospital.

Russian opposition leaders have been targeted with violence in the past. In 2015, the opposition leader and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov was shot four times and killed within sight of the Kremlin. Five men from Chechnya were jailed for the attack, although his family believes those who ordered the killing were never caught.

Alexei Navalny’s wife Yulia stands in front of the hospital in Omsk. Photograph: Maxim Karlayev/EPA
Alexei Navalny’s wife Yulia stands in front of the hospital in Omsk. Photograph: Maxim Karlayev/EPA

Mr Navalny, who has campaigned against Mr Putin’s rule for years, was travelling through several cities in Siberia to back candidates he supports in local elections involving 40 million voters next month. He posed with supporters for a photograph from Tomsk posted on Wednesday, calling for more volunteers: “These crooks won’t kick themselves out of office,” he wrote.

Investigation

He may also have been gathering information for an investigation into local United Russia lawmakers, the local news site Tayga.Info reported. Revelations of corruption in his investigations into senior members of the Russian government have fuelled street protests and provoked angry threats from powerful officials.

“There is no doubt that Navalny was poisoned for his political position and activity,” said Vyacheslav Gimadi, the head of the legal department of Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. Mr Navalny was also attacked in 2017 with a green dye that left him with partial blindness in one eye.

Several opposition figures have been targeted with poison since Mr Putin came to power in 2000. Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer who defected to the UK, died in 2006 of radiation sickness after ingesting a lethal dose of polonium-210 slipped into his tea. One of the men accused in his poisoning is now an MP in Russia’s parliament. Opposition activist Petr Verzilov recently revealed a poisoning attempt against his life in Moscow in 2018.

Mr Navalny has used the protests in Belarus against its president, Alexander Lukashenko, to try to persuade Russians to back candidates he supports in next month’s local elections.

In a recent appearance on his YouTube channel, Mr Navalny spoke excitedly of how successful strikes by key workers in Belarus had forced authorities to start engaging with protesters. Video clips of Belarusian workers declaring they had voted for the opposition accompanying his commentary were labelled “Russia of the future”.

Activists believe they may face a Belarusian scenario when Mr Putin comes up for re-election in 2024 after he successfully got the constitution changed to allow him to run again for president twice.

“In today’s Belarus we can see ourselves in the near future,” said opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov. “The opposition candidate gets 80 per cent and the dictator is struggling to get 10 per cent, but the election commission simply swaps the results.”– Guardian