The Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny has been discharged from hospital and returned to prison against the wishes of his doctor, who said his symptoms may indicate poisoning.
Navalny was taken to hospital on Sunday morning from the Moscow prison where he was serving a 30-day sentence after being arrested last week for calling people to attend an anti-government protest.
Late on Monday evening, Navalny posted a blog entry saying he was back in jail and feeling much better. He said he had never had similar symptoms and also criticised the strange behaviour of the hospital staff. He said he wanted to see CCTV footage of his cell to see if people came in and put any substances on his bed during exercise breaks.
“If during this time some people came into the cell, then the poisoning theory begins to gather strength. If not, then the theory of an medical mystery becomes more likely,” he wrote.
There is no sign that Navalny’s life is in immediate danger, but the news about his health has caused alarm in a country where the opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot dead outside the Kremlin in 2015. Anastasia Vasilieva, one of Navalny’s doctors, said discharging him on Monday back to prison could be dangerous for Navalny’s health.
She and a colleague visited Navalny in hospital on Sunday, and was able to examine him through a door, after first being denied all access. She said his symptoms included facial swelling, itching and a rash.
Born in 1976 just outside Moscow, Alexei Navalny is a lawyer-turned-campaigner whose Anti-Corruption Foundation carries out investigations into the wealth of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
He started out as a Russian nationalist, but emerged as the main leader of Russia's democratic opposition during the wave of protests that led up to the 2012 presidential election, and has since been a constant thorn in the Kremlin’s side.
Navalny is barred from appearing on state television, but has used social media to his advantage. A 2017 documentary accusing the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, of corruption received more than 30m views on YouTube within two months of release.
He has been repeatedly arrested and jailed by the authorities. The European court of human rights ruled that Russia violated Navalny's rights by holding him under house arrest in 2014. Election officials formally barred him from running for president in 2018 due to an embezzlement conviction that he claims was politically motivated. Navalny told the commission its decision would be a vote “not against me, but against 16,000 people who have nominated me, against 200,000 volunteers who have been canvassing for me”.
There has also been a physical price to pay. In April 2017, he was hospitalised after being attacked with green dye that nearly blinded him in one eye, and in July 2019 was taken from jail to hospital with symptoms that one of his doctors said could indicate poisoning.
His main strength in opposition has been in bringing large numbers of protesters out on to Russia's streets. At times, Navalny has seemed to find short spells in jail an energising rather than demoralising experience. “There were some others in the jail, and for all of them it was their first protest in their lives," he once said. "When they saw me walking past, they were calling out, ‘When’s the next protest?’ They weren’t asking if there would be one, they wanted to know when.”
Vasilieva is an ophthalmologist, who treated Navalny after he was doused with green dye by pro-Kremlin activists in 2017 in an attack that left him temporarily blind in one eye. She said it was clear Navalny was not suffering from an allergy but from “the result of harmful effects of undefined chemical substances”.
“We cannot exclude toxic damage to the skin by chemicals induced by a ‘third person’,” she wrote. She called on the hospital administration to immediately allow proper medical care for Navalny.
Late on Sunday night, a doctor at the hospital, Eldar Kazakhmedov, told the Russian news agency Interfax he believed Navalny was suffering an allergic reaction, though he could not say to what. “At the current time, Navalny’s condition is improving, and all his key indicators are stable. He feels a lot better than when he was admitted,” said Kazakhmedov.
Police detained at least 10 of Navalny’s supporters who had gathered outside the hospital late on Sunday evening, according to a correspondent for Russia’s TV Rain, who was also briefly arrested while live on air.
Vasilieva responded on Monday morning that the hospital’s behaviour was unhelpful and suspicious. “The patient himself and his relatives are not told the diagnosis, they find it out from Interfax. Nobody knows the reason for what happened and his own doctors are kicked out. They’re lying to us. The patient says his eye hurts and they say: ‘He doesn’t need an ophthalmologist. Let it hurt.’”
Later, she was allowed to examine him, but said she strongly disagreed with the hospital’s decision to discharge him back to prison.
The protest Navalny was jailed for supporting went ahead on Saturday, and prompted the most forceful police response to protests in the country for years, with more than 1,300 people detained by officers.
People were protesting against the refusal of electoral authorities to register independent candidates for the Moscow city council elections in September.
Most of those detained were released without charge, but more than 150 spent Saturday night in police stations and may face court this week. An independent monitoring group said at least 25 people had been injured by police.
Several other opposition politicians remain in jail, held on the charge of “obstructing the work of the electoral commission”, and police have carried out late-night searches of their homes in recent days. One, Ilya Yashin, was due in court on Monday morning.
Opposition candidates say they have been barred from the election on the invented pretext that some of the signatures collected to support their candidacies were faked.
On Saturday morning the Moscow mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, warned people they could face arrest if they tried to protest, and riot police had clearly been given orders to move forcefully against the demonstrators. Large areas of the city centre were cordoned off and police used rough tactics and batons to detain protesters despite their action remaining peaceful.
Natalia Zviagina from Amnesty International said the violent response to the protest was a “new low” for Russian authorities and called on police to release all of those detained. “No one should be imprisoned for merely exercising their rights to expression and peaceful assembly,” she said.
Opposition leaders have said they will call another protest for 3 August in an attempt to keep up the pressure on authorities.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who on Saturday descended in a miniature submarine to inspect the wreck of a second world war submarine, has not commented on the protests or the arrests. State TV has also largely ignored the unrest, but millions of Russians watched live streams of Saturday’s events on YouTube.