A team of German doctors who flew in on a medical plane to evacuate Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny were allowed to see him in a Siberian hospital on Friday, but local doctors refused to authorise the transfer, claiming that the Kremlin critic was too ill for a medical evacuation.
Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, has been in a coma since Thursday in a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk after he fell ill on a flight.
His supporters believe he was poisoned shortly before boarding the flight. Navalny’s wife Yulia Navalnaya and his supporters want to fly the stricken Russian opposition figure to Germany for medical treatment.
Navalnaya on Friday posted a letter on her husband’s Twitter account addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I officially apply to you with a demand for permission to take Alexei Navalny to Germany,” the letter said.
Navalny’s wife speaks to reporters outside Russian hospital
Doctors in Omsk who are treating Navalny said on Friday the politician’s condition had improved a little, but that it was still unstable and attempting to move him could pose a risk to his life.
However, the team of German doctors that flew to Omsk were finally given access to the stricken Russian opposition leader, Navalny’s staff said on Friday.
“This is a positive sign that this decision that he is not transportable, not allowed to board this aircraft, might be reversed,” Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, told reporters at a Berlin news conference organised by rights group the Cinema for Peace Foundation.
The doctors specialised in treating coma patients departed Germany on Thursday evening to try to bring Navalny back to Berlin, where the Charite hospital has agreed to accept him as a patient.
Volkov said even though there were optimistic signs what with the doctors being allowed to see him, they were still lacking any reliable “independent data” on Navalny’s condition and his allies were standing by their demand that he needs to be brought to Germany for examination.
“We are still very far away from having this situation resolved,” he said.
Traces of industrial chemical substance
Navalny’s supporters believe he must have consumed poison in the tea he drank at an airport cafe before boarding the plane early Thursday. During the flight, Navalny started sweating and asked Yarmysh to talk to him so that he could “focus on the sound of a voice”. He then went to the bathroom and lost consciousness.
Earlier Friday, the deputy head of the Omsk hospital where Navalny is being treated told reporters there were no traces of poison in tests carried out on the 44-year-old opposition figure.
Navalny’s supporters denounced the medical verdict as a ploy by the authorities to “stall and wait” until the suspected poison is no longer traceable in his system.
But later Friday, Siberian health officials said a police laboratory had found traces of a chemical substance of an industrial nature on Navalny’s hair and hands.
Russia expert ‘firmly believes it was a poisoning’
Macron, Merkel offer help
Reports about the alleged poisoning made waves in the West. French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday said France was ready to offer Navalny and his family “all necessary assistance … in terms of health care, asylum, protection” and insisted on the need to clarify what happened.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at a joint news conference with Macron, echoed his sentiment. “Obviously Germany will let him have all the medical help that is needed also in German hospitals,” Merkel said.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and the United Nations also expressed concern over what happened to Navalny, and Amnesty International demanded a full and thorough investigation.
The widow of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian agent who was killed in London by radioactive poisoning in 2006, voiced concern that Navalny’s enemies within Russia may have decided it was time to use a “new tactic”.
“Maybe they decided to do a new tactic not to stop him just with an arrest but to stop him with poison. It looks like a new tactic against Navalny,” Marina Litvinenko told AP from Sicily, Italy.
Like many other opposition politicians in Russia, Navalny has been frequently detained by law enforcement and harassed by pro-Kremlin groups. In 2017, he was attacked by several men who threw antiseptic in his face, damaging an eye.
Last year, Navalny was rushed to a hospital from prison, where he was serving a sentence following an administrative arrest, with what his team said was suspected poisoning. Doctors said then that he had a severe allergic attack and discharged him back to prison the following day.
Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption has been exposing graft among government officials, including some at the highest level. Last month, he had to shut the foundation after a financially devastating lawsuit from Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin.
Falling approval ratings for Putin
Navalny campaigned to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election but was barred from running.
He set up a network of campaign offices across Russia and has since been promoting opposition candidates in regional elections, challenging members of Russia’s ruling party, United Russia. One of his associates in Khabarovsk, a city in Russia’s Far East that has been engulfed in mass protests against the arrest of the region’s governor, was detained last week after calling for a strike at a rally.
In the interview with Echo Moskvy, Yarmysh said she believed the suspected poisoning was connected to this year’s regional election campaign.
Commentators say Navalny has become increasingly dangerous for the Kremlin as Putin’s approval has plummeted this year to a record low of around 60 percent amid the coronavirus pandemic and growing public frustration with the declining economy.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)