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US, EU demand Navalny’s freedom as worries grow over Russian opposition leader’s health

Aleksei Navalny (Evgeny Feldman/Novaya Gazeta/Wikimedia Commons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The United States and the European Union have reiterated their calls for Russia to immediately release Aleksei Navalny after the jailed opposition politician said he was suffering from severe back pains and that “nothing” was being done by prison authorities to solve the problem.

In a message posted on his Instagram account on March 26, Navalny also said he had been warned by past prominent prisoners that getting sick in prison was potentially fatal.

“Once Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who served 10 years in prison, told me: The main thing is not to get sick there,” the post said, referring to the owner of the former oil giant Yukos who spent a decade behind bars after being convicted in two controversial cases.

“Nobody will treat you. If you get seriously ill, you will die,” he quoted Khodorkovsky as telling him.

Navalny, 44, is currently incarcerated in Correctional Colony No. 2, about 100 kilometers from Moscow. The prison is known as one of the toughest penitentiaries in Russia.

“We have seen the disturbing reports about Aleksei Navalny’s worsening health in prison. We urge continued access for his lawyers and that he receive medical care,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price tweeted on March 26.

“We reiterate our call for Russia to immediately and unconditionally release” Navalny, he added.

Earlier, Nabila Massrali, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, issued a similar call, saying Russian authorities “must give @navalny access to medical care & give his lawyers access to him.”

The Kremlin foe’s condition became an issue on March 24 after his allies said they were concerned over his deteriorating health and called on prison authorities to clarify his condition.

On March 25, Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, issued a plea to the Kremlin to free her husband so that he could be treated by doctors “he trusts” and called his imprisonment the president’s “personal revenge.”

The same day, Navalny’s lawyers were finally able to see him and reported the anti-corruption campaigner was in an “extremely unfavorable” condition, suffering from back pain and issues with his right leg that has made it “practically nonfunctional.”

The message on Instagram said that “getting out of bed is hard and very painful” but that “a week ago, the prison doctor examined me and prescribed two tablets of ibuprofen [a day], but I still don’t know the diagnosis.”

“Apparently a nerve was pinched from constantly sitting in police wagons and in ‘pencil cases’ crookedly,” he said in reference to the cramped cages defendants are placed in during court hearings.

President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic joked that he did not want to “part with” his right leg and quipped about becoming a one-legged pirate.

‘Sleep Deprivation’

Talking to journalists in Moscow, Putin’s spokesman said Navalnaya “should not have turned to the Kremlin as it has no role in the matter.”

“We will not react to such an appeal…. At the moment, in a situation when a citizen is a convict incarcerated in a penal colony, the address for such appeals is the FSIN,” Dmitry Peskov said, referring to the Federal Penitentiary Service.

Lawyer Vadim Kobzev said that after “finally” getting to see Navalny, it quickly became clear that he was not only not being treated properly, “but a deliberate strategy is under way to undermine his health.”

In a statement on his website, Navalny also accused the prison of torturing him through sleep deprivation.

Peskov rejected that allegation, saying Navalny, like other prisoners, is woken up every hour as a way “of maintaining order and discipline in penitentiaries” and that stricter measures are often used in prisons abroad.

Peskov, however, failed to address the allegation that such measures weren’t needed since there is a closed-circuit television camera in Navalny’s cell allowing guards to monitor him at all times.

Such comments show “these people are the enemies of our own country,” Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) said on Twitter in response to Peskov’s statements.

Navalny was detained at a Moscow airport in January immediately upon returning from Berlin, where he was recovering from what several Western laboratories determined was a poisoning attempt using a Novichok-type nerve agent that saw him fall seriously ill on a flight in Siberia in August 2020.

Navalny has said the assassination attempt was ordered by Putin — an allegation rejected by the Kremlin.

A Moscow court in February ruled that while in Germany, Navalny had violated the terms of parole from an older embezzlement case that is widely considered to be politically motivated.

His suspended 3 1/2-year sentence was converted into jail time, though the court reduced that amount to 2 1/2 years for time already served in detention.

Navalny’s incarceration set off a wave of nationwide protests and a crackdown against his supporters.

The European Union, the United States, and Canada have imposed a series of sanctions against Russia over the Navalny case.