Poisoning of Alexei Navalny

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Poisoning of Alexei Navalny
Навальный госпитализирован в Омске.png
Hospitalization of Alexei Navalny from the airport in Omsk
LocationXander Hotel, Tomsk, Russia (presumably)[1][2]
Date20 August 2020; 2 months ago (2020-08-20)
TargetAlexei Navalny
Attack type
Poisoning
WeaponsNovichok[3]

On 20 August 2020, Russian opposition figure and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was poisoned by a nerve agent and was hospitalized in a serious condition. During the flight, he became violently ill and was taken to a hospital in Omsk after an emergency landing there, and put in a coma. He was evacuated to the Charité hospital in Berlin, Germany two days later. On 2 September, the German government said that it had "unequivocal evidence" that Navalny was poisoned by a Novichok agent after tests at a German military lab and had called on the Russian government for an explanation, with labs in France and Sweden corroborating the findings.[3] On 7 September, doctors announced that they had taken Navalny out of the induced coma and that his condition had improved.[4] He was discharged from the hospital on 22 September 2020.[5][6] On 6 October, the OPCW confirmed the presence of a cholinesterase inhibitor from the Novichok group in Navalny’s blood and urine samples.[7][8][9][10] At the same time, the OPCW report clarified that Navalny was poisoned with a new type of Novichok, which was not included in the list of controlled chemicals of the Chemical Weapons Convention.[11][12][13]

Other prominent Russians including activists, journalists and former spies, especially those critical of the Kremlin, have suffered poisoning attacks in recent decades, with targets such as Alexander Litvinenko and Sergei Skripal.[14][15] It is presumed that Navalny was poisoned in a politically motivated attack for his work. Ivan Zhdanov, chief of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, said that Navalny could have been poisoned over one of the foundation's investigations.[16] Navalny accused President Vladimir Putin of being responsible for his poisoning.[17] The EU and the UK imposed sanctions over Navalny's poisoning on FSB director Alexander Bortnikov and five other senior Russian officials and a state chemical centre. According to the EU, the poisoning of Navalny became possible "only with the consent of the Presidential Executive Office" and with the participation of the FSB.[18][19][20]

Russian prosecutors refused to open an official criminal investigation of the poisoning, claiming they found no sign that a crime had been committed.[21][22]

Background[edit]

Alexei Navalny has previously been attacked by chemical substances. On 27 April 2017, Navalny was attacked by unknown assailants outside his office in the Anti-Corruption Foundation who sprayed brilliant green dye, possibly mixed with other components, into his face (see Zelyonka attack). He said he had lost 80 percent of the sight in his right eye. He also said that his doctor believed there was a second corrosive substance in the liquid and that "there is hope" the lost eyesight would be restored. He also alleged that the attacker was Aleksandr Petrunko, a man who he claimed had ties with State Duma deputy speaker Pyotr Olegovich Tolstoy.[23][24] Navalny accused the Kremlin of orchestrating the attack.[25][26]

Another incident occurred in July 2019, when Navalny was arrested and imprisoned. On 28 July, he was hospitalized with severe damage to his eyes and skin. At the hospital, he was diagnosed with an allergic reaction, although this diagnosis was disputed by Anastasia Vasilieva, one of his personal doctors.[27] Vasilieva questioned the diagnosis and suggested the possibility that Navalny's condition was the result of "the damaging effects of undetermined chemicals".[28] On 29 July 2019, Navalny was discharged from hospital and taken back to prison, despite the objections of his personal physician who questioned the hospital's motives.[27][29] Supporters of Navalny and journalists gathered outside the hospital and were then dispersed by police, who arrested several participants.[28]

In August 2020, in the days leading up to the poisoning, Navalny had been publishing videos on his YouTube channel in which he expressed support for the pro-democracy 2020 Belarusian protests, which were triggered by the heavily contested 2020 Belarusian presidential election.[30] Navalny had also written that the kind of 'revolution' that was taking place in neighbouring Belarus would soon happen in Russia.[31] Local news site Tayga.Info reported that during his Siberia trip, Navalny had been carrying out an investigation, as well as meeting local candidates and volunteers. When asked if Navalny was preparing an exposé shortly before he became violently ill, Navalny ally Lyubov Sobol stated "I can't reveal all the details, but Navalny was on a work trip. He wasn't relaxing in the regions".[31] The video investigation was later published by Navalny's team on August 31.[32]

It is assumed that Navalny was poisoned in a politically motivated attack as 'punishment' for his opposition work.[31] Other prominent Russians including activists, journalists and former spies have suffered poisoning attacks in recent decades such as Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 and Sergei Skripal in 2018, both in the United Kingdom. In the former instance, the poison was administered by being placed in Litvinenko's tea. British authorities blamed both attacks on Russian intelligence agencies and an inquiry concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had "probably" approved Litvinenko's killing. In the latter instance, a Novichok nerve agent was used. According to The New York Times, experts expressed doubts that the Novichok agent would be used by someone other than a state-sponsored agent.[33] Journalist and human rights advocate Anna Politkovskaya, known for her criticism of Putin and her coverage of the Second Chechen War, fell ill during a flight to cover the Beslan school siege in 2004 after drinking tea in an apparent poisoning attempt. She was later assassinated in 2006.[34][15] In 2018, Pussy Riot activist Pyotr Verzilov was hospitalised in Moscow and later taken to the Charité hospital in Berlin a few days later for treatment which was organised by the Cinema for Peace Foundation after a suspected poisoning, where doctors at the hospital said it was "highly probable" that he was poisoned.[35]

According to activist Ilya Chumakov, who met Navalny along with other supporters the day before his flight, when Navalny was asked why he was not dead, he said that his death would not be beneficial to Putin and that it would turn him into a hero.[36]

Poisoning and recovery[edit]

On 20 August 2020, Navalny fell ill during a flight from Tomsk to Moscow and was hospitalised in the City Clinical Emergency Hospital No. 1 in Omsk (Russian: Городская клиническая больница скорой медицинской помощи №1), where the plane had made an emergency landing. The change in his condition on the plane was sudden and violent, and video footage showed crew members on the flight scurrying towards him and Navalny crying in pain loudly.[31]

Afterwards, his spokeswoman said that he was in a coma and on a ventilator in the hospital. She also said that Navalny only drank tea since the morning and that it was suspected that something was added to his drink. The hospital said that he was in a stable but serious condition, and after initially acknowledging that Navalny had probably been poisoned, the hospital's deputy chief physician told reporters that poisoning was "one scenario among many" being considered.[31] Although doctors initially suggested he suffered from a metabolic disorder caused by low blood sugar, they later stated that he had most likely been poisoned by antipsychotics or neuroleptics and that industrial chemicals such as 2-ethylhexyl diphenyl phosphate were found.[37][38] A photograph on social media taken by a fan appeared to show Navalny drinking tea at a Tomsk airport café, where Interfax news agency reported that the owners of the café were checking CCTV footage to see if any evidence could be provided.[39][40][41]

By the afternoon, Navalny's wife, Yulia, had reached the hospital from Moscow. She brought with her Navalny's personal doctor, Anastasia Vasilyeva. The authorities, however, initially refused to allow them into the room. They demanded proof in the form of a marriage certificate that Yulia was indeed his wife.[31] A chartered plane paid for by Cinema for Peace Foundation was sent from Germany to evacuate Navalny from Omsk for treatment at the Charité in Berlin.[42] The doctors treating him in Omsk had initially declared he was too sick to be transported[43] but later released him, and he arrived in Berlin on 22 August.[44][45] Alexander Murakhovsky, the head doctor at the Omsk hospital, told the press conference on 24 August that they had saved his life and found no traces of any poison in his system; he also said the doctors at the hospital had not been under pressure on the part of Russian officials.[46] The doctors treating him at the Charité announced later in the day that while the specific substance was not yet known, clinical findings indicated poisoning with a substance from the group of with a cholinesterase inhibitor, and that they would be performing further tests to discover the exact substance. Evidence might come with the publication of the initiated laboratory testing.[47]

As of 2 September 2020, Navalny was in a medically-induced coma. German physicians said that if he recovered lasting effects could not be ruled out.[33] Dr. Murakhovsky wrote a letter to the Charité, demanding that they show laboratory data about him being poisoned with a cholinesterase inhibitor, stating the doctors in his hospital found no such evidence. He stated that cholinesterase decrease may have happened either by intake of a compound or naturally, also publishing a purported independent analysis detecting no cholinesterase inhibitors. He confirmed giving him atropine, which is used to counteract certain nerve agents and pesticide poisoning, but claimed the reasons were unrelated to poisoning.[48][49]

On 2 September, the German government said that it had "unequivocal evidence" that Navalny had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent from toxicology tests carried out by a German Army laboratory. In a statement, Angela Merkel's spokesman said that the "Russian government is urgently requested to explain what happened" and that the "German government condemn[ed] this attack in the strongest possible terms". Merkel said that "Mr. Navalny ha[d] been the victim of a crime" which "raise[d] very serious questions that only the Russian government c[ould] and must answer".[3]

On 7 September, doctors brought Navalny out of the medically-induced coma.[4] In a press release, Charité said:[50]

The condition of Alexei Navalny, ... has improved. The patient has been removed from his medically induced coma and is being weaned off mechanical ventilation. He is responding to verbal stimuli. It remains too early to gauge the potential long-term effects of his severe poisoning.

On 10 September, news media reported the police protection outside the Charite hospital had been stepped up, that Navalny was able to speak again, but Navalny's spokeswoman described reports of his quick recuperation as "exaggerated".[51]

On 11 September, Bruno Kahl, the head of Germany's foreign intelligence service, revealed that the Novichok agent identified from Navalny's toxicology results was a "harder" form than previously seen, suggesting it was a different compound from that used to poison the Skripals. The specific compound used was however still not disclosed.[52]

On 14 September, the Charité hospital said that Navalny was taken off the ventilator and that he is able to get out of bed. For the first time, the hospital said that it published the statement following consultations "with the patient and his wife", rather than his wife only.[53]

On 15 September, Navalny's spokeswoman said that Navalny would return to Russia. Navalny also posted a picture from his hospital bed on social media for the first time since his poisoning. The Kremlin ruled out a meeting between Navalny and Putin.[54]

On 17 September, Navalny's team said that traces of the nerve agent used to poison Navalny was detected on an empty water bottle from his hotel room in Tomsk, suggesting that he was possibly poisoned before leaving the hotel. It was also stated that before leaving Russia, Navalny's clothes were seized by the Russian government.[55]

On 22 September 2020 the doctors at the Charité hospital declared him well enough to be discharged from in-patient care.[5][6]

On 6 October, the OPCW announced that results of testing samples obtained from Navalny had confirmed the presence of a Novichok agent, saying [7]

...the biomarkers of the cholinesterase inhibitor found in Mr Navalny’s blood and urine samples have similar structural characteristics as the toxic chemicals belonging to schedules 1.A.14 and 1.A.15 that were added to the Annex on Chemicals to the Convention during the Twenty-Fourth Session of the Conference of the States Parties in November 2019. This cholinesterase inhibitor is not listed in the Annex on Chemicals to the Convention.

The exact structure of the agent involved has still not been disclosed, but according the announcement above, the compound shares structural similarities with A-232 (the example compound for schedule 1.A.14) and A-242 (the example compound for schedule 1.A.15).

Preliminary investigation[edit]

On 27 August, Russian police and the Ministry of the Interior said they had launched a preliminary investigation into the poisoning, described as routine, and inspected Navalny's hotel room, security footage and scouted out his journey for evidence. Police also said that over 100 pieces of potential evidence were collected.[56] Prosecutors said there was no need for a further investigation after the preliminary investigation, claiming it found no sign that a crime had been committed.[22]

Reactions[edit]

After the poisoning, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Kremlin wishes him a speedy recovery and that law enforcement would launch an investigation if there is confirmation of a poisoning.[57] French President Emmanuel Macron stated that France was ready to offer "all necessary assistance ... in terms of health care, asylum, protection" to Navalny and his family and demanded clarity on the circumstances surrounding the incident. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also offered any medical assistance necessary in German hospitals. Amnesty International called for an investigation into the alleged poisoning.[58]

According to John Sipher, a former CIA station chief in Moscow, "Whether or not Putin personally ordered the poisoning, he is behind any and all efforts to maintain control through intimidation and murder".[59]

The Kremlin denied involvement in the poisoning of Navalny after allegations that Putin sanctioned Navalny's poisoning, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissing them as untrue.[60]

On 25 August, the businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has ties with Putin and has been nicknamed "Putin's chef", was quoted by the press service of his catering company Concord Management and Consulting as saying that he intended to enforce a court decision last year that required Navalny, his associate Lyubov Sobol and his Anti-Corruption Foundation to pay 88 million rubles in damages to the Moskovsky Shkolnik company over a video investigation. Concord's press service said that Prigozhin had bought the debt so that Navalny and his associate would owe him directly. Prigozhin was quoted by the company as saying "I intend to strip this group of unscrupulous people of their clothes and shoes" and that if Navalny survived, Navalny would be liable "according to the full severity of Russian law".[61]

After the German government concluded that Navalny was poisoned by Novichok, the wife of British policeman Nick Bailey, who was exposed to Novichok after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, tweeted, "It's been almost 2 1/2 years after the events in Salisbury and there has been no justice for Dawn and her family and none for the Skripals, Charlie or us. And now it's happened again".[62]

United States Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun stated that the US finds the German conclusion about the use of Novichok "very credible” and "deeply concerning".[33]

Navalny's chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, stated "In 2020, poisoning Navalny with Novichok is the same as leaving an autograph at the scene of the crime".[33]

The European External Action Service in a statement condemned the poisoning and said that it is "essential that the Russian government investigates thoroughly and in a transparent manner the assassination attempt of Mr Navalny".[63]

On 4 September, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated: "Time and again, we have seen opposition leaders and critics of the Russian regime attacked, and their lives threatened. Some have even been killed. So this is not just an attack on an individual, but on fundamental democratic rights. It is a serious breach of international law, which demands an international response." He also asked the Russian authorities to fully cooperate with an impartial international investigation.[64]

On 6 September, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that Germany was planning to discuss possible sanctions against Russia if the Kremlin does not provide an explanation soon, saying that any sanctions should be "targeted". Maas also said that there were "several indications" that Russian authorities were behind the poisoning.[65] He also said that a lack of support from Russia in the investigation could "force" Germany to change its position on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. However he also admitted that halting the building of the nearly complete pipeline would harm German and European companies.[66]

While recovering after discharge from the Charité hospital, Navalny stated "I assert that Putin was behind the crime, and I have no other explanation for what happened. Only three people can give orders to put into action 'active measures' and use Novichok... (but) FSB director Alexander Bortnikov, foreign intelligence service head Sergey Naryshkin and the director of GRU cannot make such a decision without Putin's orders."[67]

Polls[edit]

According to polls conducted by the Levada Center in September 2020, 77% of Russian respondents had heard about Navalny’s poisoning. 55% of respondents said they do not believe reports that he was poisoned, while 33% believed he was poisoned.[68]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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