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Putin's Number One Critic May Have Been Poisoned After Organizing Pro-Democracy Protests

Alexei Navalny's doctor says he might have been deliberately exposed to a chemical agent while in jail.

by Tim Hume
Jul 29 2019, 1:21pm

A doctor for Russia's most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, says she believes he may have been deliberately poisoned after being jailed for organizing pro-democracy demonstrations.

Navalny, a 43-year anti-corruption campaigner and arch-critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was taken from his jail cell to hospital Sunday after suffering what initial reports suggested was a severe allergic reaction. But his personal doctor, Anastasia Vassilieva, said she believed he had been exposed to a chemical agent.

“We cannot rule out that toxic damage to the skin and mucous membranes by an unknown chemical substance was inflicted with the help of a 'third party,'” she wrote on Facebook.

On Monday, Navalny was discharged from hospital to be returned to jail, where he was serving a 30-day sentence for his role in organizing a major pro-democracy demonstration that was held on Saturday. Vassilieva said that she opposed his discharge, as he required medical supervision, and the results of samples of his hair and clothing she had sent for independent testing had not been returned yet.

Navalny, who led the country's biggest street protests against Putin in 2011, was behind bars Saturday as thousands of young Russians — as many as 15,000, according to liberal Russian media outlets — protested in the streets of central Moscow to demand that independent candidates be allowed to run for city council in September elections.

Nearly 1,400 protesters were detained by baton-wielding police in riot gear, in one of the largest police crackdowns in Russia in a decade, according to the monitoring group OVD-Info. While many were released without charge, monitors said about 150 of the protesters — who chanted slogans such as “Russia without Putin!” — were held overnight Sunday and may face charges this week.

The heavy-handed police response drew swift condemnation from the United States, the European Union, and rights groups. EU spokeswoman Maja Kojiancic said that “the disproportionate use of force,” along with recent detentions of opposition figures, “once again seriously undermine the fundamental freedoms of expression, association and assembly.”

The protests were the latest in a movement that began two weeks ago, after the local election board refused to register several candidates, claiming that they had not gathered enough signatures to qualify, and that some used in support of their applications were forged. Last week, more than 22,000 people rallied in Moscow over the issue, prompting the shocked authorities to take a hardline response by banning Saturday’s rally and arresting Navalny.

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Navalny is not believed to be in life-threatening danger. But his mysterious illness has created shockwaves in a country where opposition figures often meet violence: opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot dead outside the Kremlin in 2015, and Navalny himself was temporarily blinded in one eye when pro-Kremlin activists attacked him with a chemical dye in 2017.

Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, broke the news of the campaigner’s condition Sunday morning, saying he had suffered a “severe allergic reaction,” involving major swelling of the face and skin redness, despite never having had an allergic reaction before.

But Vassilieva later wrote on Facebook after visiting Navalny in his hospital bed that she believed he had been exposed to a toxic substance. “Some toxic agent may be the reason for Alexei Navalny's 'illness',” she wrote. She accused the doctors treating him of not wanting to investigate the source of the illness, which had left him with a rash on his upper body, skin lesions, and discharge from his eye.

“They say he simply has hives. But why are you lying?" she wrote.

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At least 10 of Navalny’s supporters who had gathered outside the hospital were detained Sunday night, and in recent days police have also detained a number of other leaders of the protest movement, including Ilya Yashin, Lyubov Sobol, and Dmitry Gudkov.

Andrea Kalan, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, tweeted that the Russian authorities, in their mass detention of protesters and disproportionate use of force, were undermining “rights of citizens to participate in the democratic process.”

Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Russia director, condemned the Russian government’s response to the protest, saying her staff had witnessed several instances of police brutality against the “overwhelmingly peaceful” demonstrators.

“Russian authorities today hit a new low by imposing military law-like security measures on the unsanctioned rally, blocking access to major Moscow streets and shutting down businesses in advance of the demonstration, despite the absence of credible reports of potential violence,” she said.

Despite the harsh crackdown, opposition leaders have vowed to regroup and hold another protest this coming Saturday, in a bid to capitalize on the seething public anger over the brutal police tactics and force the authorities to back down before September’s vote. More than 21,000 people have signed a petition calling on Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to resign.

"Sergei Sobyanin is no longer the mayor of Moscow," Russian political commentator Konstantin Sonin said in the Vedomosti daily.

Cover: In this Saturday, July 20, 2019, file photo, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a protest in Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)

Vladimir Putin
Alexei Navalny
Moscow protests