Alexei Navalny, the high-profile Russian dissident who survived poisoning by Kremlin intelligence agents, was transferred from his prison colony to an unknown location on Tuesday, fueling fears for his safety among his supporters.
Kira Yarmysh, a spokesperson for the jailed opposition leader, said that a lawyer who had gone to visit Navalny at a prison camp in Pokrov, 119 km (74 miles) east of Moscow, on Tuesday, was told by a guard: "There is no such convict here."
“We do not know where Alexei is now and what colony they are taking him to,” she tweeted.
She said that none of his family or lawyers had been notified of any transfer, although they had heard rumours he would be transferred to a high-security penal colony.
“The problem with his transfer to another colony is not only that the high-security colony is much scarier,” she wrote.
“As long as we don't know where Alexei is, he remains one-on-one with the system that has already tried to kill him, so our main task now is to locate him as soon as possible.”
Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, was sensationally poisoned with Novichok – a Soviet-era nerve agent known as a hallmark of the Russian intelligence services – during a campaign trip to Siberia in August 2020. After recovering from the potentially lethal attack in a hospital in Berlin, he stunned observers by returning to his homeland, into the clutches of the government widely accused of having tried to assassinate him.
On his return in January 2021, Navalny, 46, was arrested and jailed for parole violations, sparking widespread protests in Russia and drawing condemnation from Western governments. In March this year, he was sentenced to an extra nine years for fraud and contempt of court, and last month, a new criminal case was opened against him on allegations of founding an extremist organisation – relating to his political network – and inciting hate towards the authorities – charges that could bring him an extra 15 years in jail.
Russia expert Eleanor Bindman, a senior lecturer in politics at Manchester Metropolitan University, told VICE World News that the development was “disturbing.”
“It’s definitely concerning,” she said.
She said that prisoners were routinely “lost” in the Russian penal system, being transferred without their families or lawyers being notified.
“But because of who he is, it does raise the question of whether this is just a standard prisoner movement, or something else – in his case there’s always that suspicion.”
Despite his imprisonment, Navalny has continued to be a thorn in the side of the Putin administration, criticising the Russian leader – who refuses to refer to Navalny by name – during his court appearances, and condemning his invasion of Ukraine as “criminal” and “built on lies.”
Meanwhile, the Russian government has ramped up its campaign to crush Navalny’s network – now banned as an alleged extremist organisation – along with other elements of the domestic opposition.
“Navalny’s network has been completely broken up now,” said Bindman. “Most are in exile, some are in jail. It’s virtually impossible for anyone connected to him to continue [their activism].”