Report

Russian Opposition Leader Navalny Announces Hunger Strike

The Kremlin foe’s health has deteriorated dramatically since being transferred to a brutal penal colony.

The Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, are seen at the passport control point at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on Jan. 17. Russian police detained Navalny at the airport shortly after he landed on a flight from Berlin.
The Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, are seen at the passport control point at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on Jan. 17. Russian police detained Navalny at the airport shortly after he landed on a flight from Berlin. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

The Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny announced on Wednesday that he will begin a hunger strike to demand access to an independent doctor as his health has declined dramatically since he was transferred in late February to a penal colony east of Moscow notorious for its harsh conditions.

In a post on his Instagram page, Navalny explained his decision, saying that he had a right to see a doctor and receive proper medication. “Instead of medical assistance, I am tortured with sleep deprivation,” he wrote, adding that he is woken up eight times every night. Navalny’s allies sounded the alarm about his health last week, stating that the Kremlin foe was suffering from severe back pain and that numbness in one of his legs had affected his ability to walk.

“Under the circumstances known to us, such a sharp deterioration in his health can’t not be cause for extreme concern,” his lawyers Olga Mikhailova and Vadim Kobzev wrote in a statement published by Navalny ally Leonid Volkov.

Prison doctors have provided Navalny with ibuprofen and topical pain relievers, but he has been denied access to doctors from outside the penitentiary system, raising concerns that he won’t receive proper treatment. Some 500 Russian doctors and medical professionals have signed an online petition demanding that an independent doctor be allowed in to see him.

A longtime Kremlin critic known for exposing high-level corruption, Navalny fell ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow last August, and toxicology tests later revealed that he had been poisoned with a potentially lethal Novichok-type nerve agent. An investigation by Bellingcat and the Insider pointed the finger at Russian security services, which had trailed Navalny for years, including on his trip to Siberia.

After returning to Russia early this year, Navalny was detained at a Moscow airport before being sentenced in February to spend more than two years in a penal colony for violating the terms of his parole for a previous charge widely thought to be politically motivated. His arrest in January sparked street protests in towns and cities across the country, coming as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings have slumped to a historic low.

It’s unclear what has caused such a rapid deterioration in Navalny’s health. According to his lawyers, he had an MRI last week, but the results have not been returned. In a post on his Instagram on Friday, Navalny speculated that the pain may be the result of a pinched nerve from sitting in police vans and so-called “pencil cases,” the deceptively wholesome term used to describe the small cages used to contain defendants during Russian court hearings.

In a statement on Thursday, the Russian federal penitentiary service said Navalny had been examined the previous day and that his health was “stable and satisfactory.”

In his Instagram post on Friday, Navalny said he had been warned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the exiled Russian oligarch who was imprisoned for a decade after he began supporting opposition groups, not to get ill in prison. Navalny said a person in his cell had an inflamed appendix and, after writhing in pain for two days, was only taken to the hospital when he “turned green and began to lose consciousness,” he said.

In 2018, human rights experts at the United Nations urged Russian officials to prosecute widespread allegations of torture and deaths in the country’s prisons.

One of the most high-profile deaths in Russian custody was that of Sergei Magnitsky, an accountant who was hired to investigate an alleged $230 million tax fraud by Russian officials. Magnitsky was subsequently arrested and died after 11 months in police custody after developing pancreatitis and being denied medical care. The United States, Canada, Britain, and the European Union have all passed legislation named after him that imposes sanctions on corrupt officials and human rights abusers in Russia and around the world.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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