Plane carrying dissident in coma leaves Russia for Germany

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A plane carrying a Russian dissident in a coma after a suspected poisoning left for a German hospital on Saturday after prolonged wrangling over Alexei Navalny’s condition and treatment.

The plane could be seen taking off from an airport in the Siberian city of Omsk just after 8am local time.

Mr Navalny, a 44-year-old politician and corruption investigator who is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics, was admitted to an intensive care unit in Omsk on Thursday.

When German specialists first arrived on a plane equipped with advanced medical equipment on Friday morning at his family’s behest, Mr Navalny’s physicians in Omsk said he was too unstable to move.

Mr Navalny’s supporters denounced that as a ploy by authorities to stall until any poison in his system would no longer be traceable.

The Omsk medical team relented only after a charity that had organised the medevac plane revealed the German doctors had examined the politician and said he was fit to be transported.

Russia Navalny
A German special medical plane takes off with Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on the board from an airport in Omsk on Saturday (Evgeniy Sofiychuk/AP)

The Kremlin denied resistance to the transfer was political, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov calling it a purely medical decision. However, the reversal came as international pressure on Russia’s leadership mounted.

It would not be the first time a prominent, outspoken Russian was targeted in such a way — or the first time the Kremlin was accused of being behind it.

Russia Navalny
Medics carry Alexei Navalny into an ambulance at the Omsk Ambulance Hospital No 1 (Evgeniy Sofiychuk/AP)

On Friday, European Union spokeswoman Nabila Massrali added the bloc was urging Russian authorities to allow him to be taken abroad.

Also on Friday, the European Court of Human Rights said it was considering a request from Mr Navalny’s supporters that it urge the Russian government to let the politician be moved.

Alexei Navalny’s wife Yulia
Alexei Navalny’s wife Yulia (Evgeniy Sofiychuk/AP)

Since then, he has been promoting opposition candidates in regional elections, challenging members of the ruling party, United Russia.

His Foundation for Fighting Corruption has been exposing graft among government officials, including some at the highest level. But he had to shut the foundation last month after a financially devastating lawsuit from a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin.

Mr Navalny fell ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on Thursday and was taken to the hospital after the plane made an emergency landing. His team made arrangements to transfer him to Charité, a clinic in Berlin that has a history of treating famous foreign leaders and dissidents.

Mr Navalny’s spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, posted pictures of what she said was a bathroom inside the hospital that showed squalid conditions, including walls with paint peeling off, rusting pipes, and a dirty floor and walls.

While his supporters and family members continue to insist Mr Navalny was poisoned, doctors in Omsk denied that and put forth another theory.

Journalists at the Omsk Ambulance Hospital No 1, intensive care unit where Alexei Navalny was admitted in Omsk, Russia
Journalists at the intensive care unit where Alexei Navalny was admitted in Omsk (Evgeniy Sofiychuk/AP)

Another doctor with ties to the politician, Dr Anastasia Vasilyeva, said diagnosing Mr Navalny with a “metabolic disorder” said nothing about what may have caused it — and it could have been the result of a poisoning.

Dr Ashikhmin, who has been Mr Navalny’s doctor since 2013, said the politician had always been in good health, regularly went for medical check-ups and had no underlying illnesses that could have triggered his condition.

Western toxicology experts expressed doubts that a poisoning could have been ruled out so quickly.

Alexander Murakhovsky, the hospital’s chief doctor, speaks to journalists at the Omsk Ambulance Hospital No 1, intensive care unit
Alexander Murakhovsky, the Omsk hospital’s chief doctor, speaks to journalists (Evgeniy Sofiychuk/AP)

Like many other opposition politicians in Russia, Mr Navalny has been frequently detained by law enforcement and harassed by pro-Kremlin groups. In 2017, he was attacked by several men who threw antiseptic in his face, damaging an eye.

Last year, Mr Navalny was rushed to a hospital from jail — where he was serving a sentence on charges of violating protest regulations. His team also suspected poisoning then. Doctors said he had a severe allergic attack and sent him back to detention the following day.

Marina Litvinenko told the AP from Italy that “every day, every hour, sometimes every second” is important.

She expressed her support for Mr Navalny’s family, saying: “Particularly for his wife Yulia, be strong,” she said. “And never give up. Believe he will survive.”

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