By Anton Zverev
MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia’s main opposition leader Alexei Navalny was transferred to a prison hospital, the prison service and his lawyer said on Monday, 20 days into a hunger strike that has brought international warnings of consequences should he die in jail.
Allies of Navalny, who have had no access to him since last week, said they were braced for bad news about his health. They are planning mass countrywide demonstrations later this week, which the Russian authorities have branded illegal.
Navalny’s case has further isolated Moscow at a time when U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has announced tougher economic sanctions and the Czech Republic, a member of NATO and the European Union, has expelled Russian spies, accusing Moscow of a role in deadly 2014 explosions at an arms storage depot.
Russia’s prison service said in a statement that a decision had been taken to transfer Navalny, 44, to a regional prison hospital. His condition was “satisfactory” and he was being given “vitamin therapy” with his consent, it said.
One of Navalny’s lawyers, Alexei Lipster, told Reuters he had arrived at the penal colony where Navalny was being held in hospital, but had not yet been able to see him.
“Yes, he’s here,” Lipster said. “They are not refusing to let me meet him, but I have still not been able to get in. I’m waiting.”
Ivan Zhdanov, head of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said on Twitter the transfer “can only be understood to mean Navalny’s condition has worsened, and worsened in such a way that even the torturer admits it”.
Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who has catalogued the vast wealth accumulated by senior Russian officials he brands “swindlers and thieves”, is serving a 2-1/2 year sentence on old embezzlement charges he calls trumped up.
He was arrested on his return to Russia in January after treatment in Germany for what German authorities say was poisoning in Russia with a banned nerve agent. He and Western governments called this an attempted assassination. The Kremlin denies any blame.
Navalny went on hunger strike on March 31 to protest against what he said was the refusal of prison authorities to provide him with treatment for leg and back pain. Russia says he has been treated well and is exaggerating illness to gain attention.
Washington has warned Moscow of unspecified “consequences” if Navalny dies in a Russian jail, and EU foreign ministers were due to discuss the case on Monday. Germany said the reports of his health were “disconcerting”.
The Kremlin said on Monday it would retaliate against any further sanctions and rejected foreign countries’ statements on the case. “The state of health of those convicted and jailed on Russian territory cannot and should not be a theme of their interest,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
SHRUGGING OFF PRESSURE
Moscow has largely shrugged off international pressure since becoming a pariah to the West in 2014 when it seized Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and backed an insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
But the arrival of a new administration in Washington in January could change the calculus if Biden presses ahead with tougher sanctions than under former President Donald Trump.
Moscow expelled 20 Czech diplomats on Sunday in retaliation for the Czech Republic expelling 18 Russians, after Prague accused Russia of a role in the arms depot blasts. The Czech Republic said on Monday Moscow’s decision to expel more Czechs than the number of Russians expelled by Prague was unexpected, and it called for a show of support from European allies.
The arms depot explosions in October and December 2014 came as NATO considered transferring Czech arms to Ukraine to help it fight Russian-backed separatists. Two people were found dead at the depot after the initial blast.
Prague said it had learned that two Russian agents, later accused by Britain of poisoning a former Russian spy in England, were in the Czech Republic at the time of the blasts. Russia has denied any role.
Last week, Russia also expelled 10 U.S. diplomats in retaliation for U.S. expulsions of Russians and tougher U.S. sanctions imposed by the Biden administration.
Navalny’s allies are calling for mass protests this week to save his life. Russian authorities have banned such demonstrations and cracked down on organisers. Police and prosecutors issued warnings on Monday against participating in banned demonstrations.
Hunger-striking Navalny transferred to Russian prison hospital