Russian Dissident Navalny Launches Hunger Strike to Protest Lack of Medical Care in Prison

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny sits in court in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 30, 2017. Many Western countries have condemned the arrests and called for the release of those sentenced to jail, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Putin's most prominent foe. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)
AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny announced on Wednesday he is on a hunger strike to protest the lack of medical treatment he is receiving in Russia’s prison system.

Navalny was arrested in January upon returning to Moscow from Germany, where he was treated for chemical weapons poisoning, an attack he blames on Russian FSB security agents under orders from President Vladimir Putin.

Navalny’s arrest triggered mass protests in Russia and condemnation from the international community, including the United States. Sanctions have been imposed against the Russian government for the poisoning and imprisonment of Navalny. 

Russian officials insist he was appropriately jailed for violating his probation on earlier embezzlement charges – in other words, they arrested him for failing to check in with his probation officer while he was in Germany recovering from the Novichok attack. This legal argument has not been well-received by human rights activists.

Navalny said on Instagram Wednesday that his health is deteriorating in prison and he is now experiencing back pains and numbness in his legs. He speculated these conditions could be after-effects of his Novichok exposure and long hospitalization in Germany:

“Given a recent attempt by the FSB operatives to kill me with chemical weapons, which state-controlled medics cast as a ‘metaboliс problem,’ I’m haunted by vague doubts about the cause of my illness and recovery prospects,” he wrote sarcastically.

Navalny believes he is losing the use of his right leg but has been given nothing but ibuprofen by prison doctors.

“If I place my weight on my right leg, I fall right down. That’s a little disturbing. I’ve got used to my right leg lately, and I’d hate to lose it,” he said.

“What else could I do? I have declared a hunger strike demanding that they allow a visit by an invited doctor in compliance with the law. So I’m lying here, hungry, but still with two legs,” he reported.

Navalny said he has not been given proper medication or access to doctors by his jailers, and complained of hourly checks by guards overnight, describing them as an effort to torture him by depriving him of sleep.

The Pokrov penal colony, where he is currently held, is noted for using such techniques against inmates. Prison officials claim Navalny is under close scrutiny because he is considered a flight risk. Navalny and his wife Yulia have described the Pokrov facility as a “concentration camp.” According to Yulia, prison officials are not only withholding pain medication from her husband, but they even confiscated a written regimen of pain-reducing back exercises that was given to Navalny by a doctor.

“Navalny is being provided with all necessary medical care in accordance with his current medical conditions,” prison officials insisted to Reuters on Wednesday. They insisted the guards “strictly respect the right of all inmates to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep” and their patrols “do not interfere with convicts resting.”

Navalny’s chosen doctor, Alexei Barinov, told Reuters his services were requested by Navalny’s lawyers and he agreed to render care, but the prison service has not given him permission to visit.

Over 500 Russian doctors signed an open letter published on Sunday demanding medical aid for Navalny. The letter was originally written by 20 doctors, but hundreds more added their endorsement during the week.

“Leaving the patient without help, including surgery, can have tragic consequences, including irreversible, severe paresis of the lower limbs,” the doctors said, additionally citing the psychological damage from sleep deprivation. The authors said the conditions Navalny described could qualify as torture.

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