Jailed Kremlin critic Navalny goes on hunger strike

Moscow, Russia: Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on Wednesday said he is launching a hunger strike to demand proper medical treatment for severe back pain and numbness in his legs.

President Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic, who is serving a 2.5-year sentence in one of Russia's most notorious penal colonies, said he was losing sensation in both legs.

The 44-year-old said he was suffering from a pinched nerve that had first caused his right leg to go numb and accused prison officials of refusing to provide  adequate medical treatment.

He complained he had only been given painkillers, but had not been properly diagnosed.

In a post on Instagram on Wednesday, Navalny said that the back pain was now causing a loss of feeling in his left leg too.

"I have gone on a hunger strike demanding that the law be obeyed and that a doctor be allowed to visit me," he said.

Navalny, who is considered a flight risk by authorities, last week filed two complaints against prison authorities, saying he is woken eight times a night by guards announcing to a recording camera that he is still in his cell.

On Wednesday, he said that instead of receiving medical treatment he is continuing to be "tortured through sleep deprivation".

"From outside it looks complicated. But on the inside it's simple: you have no other way to fight back, so you go on hunger strike," he added.

"I'm hungry, but at least I have both legs."

He added that he was lying in bed with a Bible in hand -- the only book he has managed to receive so far.

- 'Jokes aside' -

Navalny was detained in mid-January after returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering for several months from a poisoning attack with Novichok nerve agent he says was orchestrated by the Kremlin.

He spent February between detention centres and courtrooms in Moscow where he was on trial for allegedly slandering a World War II veteran and violating the terms of an old suspended sentence handed down for fraud.

Last week he said he believed he had suffered a pinched nerve from routinely being ferried in police wagons and standing "crookedly" in court cages for defendants.

He joked that he did not want to "part with" his right leg and quipped about becoming a one-legged pirate.

But on Wednesday, Navalny's tone was more urgent.

"I have the right to ask for a doctor and receive medicine," he wrote. "Jokes aside but this is already bothering me."

In a statement later Wednesday, Russia's prison service said that "Navalny is being provided with all the necessary medical assistance in accordance with his current medical condition."

It added that the nightly checks "do not interfere with the rest of the convicts".

"Correctional officers strictly observe the right of all convicts to an uninterrupted eight-hour sleep," the prison service said.

Navalny is serving out his sentence in the town of Pokrov, 100 kilometres (60 miles) east of Moscow, in a penal colony infamous for harsh discipline.

Rights activists say Penal Colony No.2 is one of Russia's worst and Navalny's wife Yulia has appealed directly to Putin to set his critic free.

- 'Slowly being killed' -

The opposition figure has regularly posted messages on social media since his incarceration, though his spokespeople have declined to explain how he has done so as the Kremlin critic does not apparently have access to the internet.

On Wednesday, Navalny's ally Lyubov Sobol, who went on hunger strike in 2019 after she and a raft of other opposition politicians were barred from balloting in local elections, said that watching his ordeal was "very painful".

"Navalny is slowly being killed in prison," she wrote on Twitter.

Allies and Western governments say his prosecution is politically motivated.

Washington and Brussels have imposed sanctions on Moscow for jailing Navalny and for allegedly ordering and executing last year's poisoning, a charge Russia has denied.

The Kremlin critic's arrest and jailing sparked large-scale demonstrations in late January and early February and his team has announced plans to stage "modern Russia's biggest protest" later this year.

Alexei Navalny: jailed Putin foe

Alexei Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic, said Wednesday he is going on a hunger strike in prison in the latest chapter of his high-profile confrontation with the Kremlin.

Over the past decade, the 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner has emerged as Russia's most prominent opposition politician, even though he has never held elected office.

In February, Navalny was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison on old embezzlement charges, becoming the country's highest-profile prisoner who keeps needling the Kremlin from behind bars.

He complained this month that he was losing sensation in both legs due to what he believed was a pinched nerve in his back and said that a prison doctor had not given him a diagnosis.

On Wednesday evening, he announced he is going on a hunger strike until he receives proper treatment.

Last August, the father-of-two barely survived a poisoning attack with what Western doctors and experts say was Novichok, a Soviet-designed nerve agent.

The poisoning ordeal has drawn global attention to Navalny and raised his international profile, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel visiting him while he was undergoing treatment in a Berlin hospital.

Navalny's decision to return to Russia in January despite the threat of arrest and jail has been seen as a direct challenge to Putin.

His call for demonstrations was answered by tens of thousands who rallied in cities across Russia in January and February, demanding Navalny's release from prison and denouncing Putin's rule.

Young fan base

Navalny has won a young fan base through viral videos exposing corruption among the elites and has 2.6 million followers on Twitter.

He has also grabbed attention with his uncompromising rhetoric and coined phrases such as the "party of crooks and thieves" to slam the ruling United Russia party.

In 2011-2012, Navalny led anti-Putin protests that attracted tens of thousands and were sparked by widespread claims of vote-rigging in parliamentary elections.

In 2013, he stood for Moscow mayor, coming second against Putin ally Sergei Sobyanin.

In 2017, Navalny accused then-prime minister Dmitry Medvedev of massive corruption in a YouTube documentary, sparking a new wave of nationwide demonstrations that were met with police violence and large-scale arrests.

The same year he had to travel to Spain for surgery after one of several street attacks left him nearly blind in one eye.

Navalny has faced a series of legal cases which supporters see as punishment for his activism.

In 2014, he was given the suspended sentence for embezzlement, and his brother Oleg, a co-defendant, was jailed for three-and-a-half years in a decision activist likened to a "hostage-taking".

Before he flew back from Germany in January, papers were filed with a Moscow court asking for that suspended sentence to be converted into jail time, a move Navalny's allies said was an attempt to block his return.

With the Kremlin tightly controlling the media, Navalny nonetheless remains a fringe figure for many Russians, who are exposed to the official portrayal of him as a Western stooge and convicted criminal.

Putin has refused to pronounce Navalny's name in public.

While barred from mainstream politics, Navalny has sought to expose the wealth of Russia's elites, broadcasting investigations to millions of Russians on social media and YouTube.

Latest expose

In his latest expose -- released after his January arrest -- he claimed a lavish Black Sea property worth $1.35 billion was built for Putin through a massive corruption scheme.

The report has been viewed more than 115 million times on YouTube and was seen as a driving force behind the latest demonstrations.

But despite tapping into discontent among a largely young urban middle class he is still far from a unifying opposition figure, and some have criticized his anti-immigrant nationalist stance.

He scored political success in local elections in 2019 and 2020 when pro-Putin parties suffered losses because of a "Smart Voting" plan Navalny put forward after his allies were barred from standing in numerous races.

The tactic calls for voters to support the one candidate most likely to defeat the ruling party and saw Kremlin-linked candidates drop seats in the Moscow assembly in 2019.

Navalny's offices have been raided repeatedly since, while his Anti-Corruption Foundation was declared a "foreign agent" and ordered to pay several large fines.

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