Outspoken Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny most recently suffered from an “acute allergic reaction” in jail, triggering a wave of rumours and suspicion. This is how he drew Moscow’s ire and why he is in jail.
Alexei Navalny, a prominent Russian opposition leader, was sentenced to jail for 30 days on July 24, 2019 for provoking a protest.
Prior to his detention, Navalny had called on dissenters to support opposition candidates so they would be allowed to run for the Moscow City Council.
More than 1,000 people were arrested in Moscow on Saturday during the protest that lasted as long as seven hours.
Navalny then suffered from a “severe allergic reaction” on Sunday morning while in jail and had to be hospitalised, according to his spokeswoman.
Kira Yarmysh tweeted that Navalny had a “severe swelling of the face and redness of the skin” and that it was unknown what had caused the allergic reaction. She also added that the 43-year old had never had an allergic reaction before in his life.
Navalny’s allergic reaction brought to mind the poisoning of Russian agent Sergei Skripal who was hospitalised with his daughter Yulia Skripal in the UK last March. They were found to be poisoned with the Novichok military-grade nerve agent. Russia denied any involvement in the Skripal case.
Navalny’s doctor Anastassia Vassilieva wrote on Facebook that she had visited him in hospital and said: “We can't rule out that his skin has been exposed to a toxin and been damaged by an unknown chemical substance from a third person.”
Navalny’s former campaign manager, who had served a sentence in the same cell a month before, tweeted that he had a similar reaction, dismissing the idea of poisoning, saying that the hygiene standards in the cell needed a “serious inspection”.
So who is Alexei Navalny?
Navalny is an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladmir Putin. He lives in Moscow and runs the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK). According to its mission statement, the foundation is “the only Russian NGO that leads public campaigns to fight corruption, protect civil rights and monitor the actions of authorities”.
Russian authorities have tried to deal with Navalny before. He once faced trial on embezzlement charges in a timber case, accused of committing a crime that was, as the New Yorker described it, “both impossible and absurd”.
As a result of the trial, Navalny was convicted in July 2013 and sentenced to five years in prison, yet his conviction ushered in a great protest in Moscow that thousands attended, despite the risk of facing fines or arrest themselves. Navalny was released the next day.
The opposition figure also ran for mayor of Moscow in the September 2013 election, coming second in a race with six candidates.
In November 2013, Navalny and his brother Oleg were accused of committing fraud in connection with a shipping company Navalny had helped set up for his brother. After a year of house arrest, Navalny was sentenced to further house arrest while Oleg was sent to jail. Navalny realised that this was illegal and broke out of his house arrest while his brother was held hostage by Moscow.
Navalny was trailed by prison authority officers until, a month later, they stopped.
He interpreted the move to the New Yorker, stating: “It’s obvious that Putin personally makes decisions about my fate. As he does with many things –– Putin personally makes a lot of the decisions in the country.”
Navalny added: “So the number of people standing in line to get a decision from Putin is so large that the person in that line holding a folder with the name Navalny on it has to wait a very long time.”
This was not the only time Navalny had a brush with the authorities. According to human rights group Amnesty International, he was “previously jailed for 15 days in March 2017, 30 days in June 2017, 20 days in October 2017, 15 days in May 2018 and 30 days in August 2018 for his role in organising mass protests across the country”.
In May 2017, an attacker threw a green chemical in his face, resulting in an 80 percent loss of his sight in one eye, the New York Times reported. Navalny wrote in his blog that while his eyesight might recover, he was banned from seeking treatment overseas by Moscow, which refused to issue him a passport.
“Aleksei Navalny’s name has long been synonymous with peaceful protest and tightening restrictions on freedom of assembly in Russia. Since March last year, thousands of people across Russia have responded to his call to join mass peaceful protests against the authorities on issues ranging from corruption to pension reform,” said Natalia Zviagina, Director of Amnesty International’s Office in Russia in a statement in 2018.
Calling Navalny “a prisoner of conscience”, Zviagina demanded that Russian authorities must “fully respect“ his right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.