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Navalny Being Treated In Germany For Suspected Poisoning After Departing Russia

Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, said she was blocked from seeing her husband and from moving him to a clinic in Berlin.
Dimitar Dilkoff
AFP via Getty Images
Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, said she was blocked from seeing her husband and from moving him to a clinic in Berlin.

Updated Saturday at 10:16 a.m. ET

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in a coma from an apparent poisoning, has been flown to Berlin where doctors are now attending to him.

"The plane with Alexei flew to Berlin," his spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, said in a tweetlate Friday. "Many thanks to everyone for their support. The struggle for Alexei's life and health is just beginning, and there is still a lot to go through, but now at least the first step has been taken."

The 44-year-old politician is fighting for his life, on a respirator but in stable condition. Doctors will be running a series of diagnostic tests to determine whether he was poisoned. Navalny's supporters suspect that tea he drank in a Siberian airport was tampered with, noting that poisoning is a common tactic the Russian government has turned to in the past when dealing with critics.

It took a full day of wrangling between Navalny's team and doctors in Siberia to finally secure Navalny's release. The doctors in Siberia had insisted his condition was too unstable for travel, but Navalny's supporters suspect they were under orders to not allow him to travel until the poison was out of his system.

It's not the first time Russia has been suspected of holding on to dissidents until poison was no longer detectable. Something similar happened in 2018 to Pyotr Verzilov, a Russian dissident and former spokesman of the band Pussy Riot.

Verzilov spoke about the similarities during a press conference Friday.

"The similarities here are striking, not only in the medical condition, but also in the behavior of Russian law enforcement officials and doctors," he said. "I was completely sealed off in the intensive care unit and no analysis, no documents, no medic, no official medical statements were made during the first day, which were obviously extremely crucial to understanding what specific substance I was poisoned with and how it happened."

Verzilov was ultimately released a few days later and flown to Berlin, where doctors concluded he was likely poisoned.

The Russian government allowed Navalny to be flown out of the country after Navalny's wife, Yulia, sent a letter to the Kremlin Friday, formally asking to move one of President Vladimir Putin's biggest critics from the Siberian hospital. At the time, a special evacuation plane was already waiting to take the politician to be cared for by specialists in Germany.

"The patient is in stable condition," Anatoly Kalinichenko, a deputy chief physician at the Omsk hospital in Siberia, said late Friday, according to Interfax. He added, "Having the request from relatives to allow him to be transported somewhere, we have at this point decided that we do not object to his transfer to another hospital, as will be indicated by his relatives."

Russian medical officials said they would provide any information needed for German doctors to care for Navalny. "Doctors of BCMP-1, who treated Alexei Navalny, are ready to provide any assistance both to the relatives and doctors of the foreign clinic and provide any information or offer assistance," Siberian health officials said, according to state-run Russian news agency TASS.

Earlier Friday, Yarmysh and others in Navalny's camp had accused doctors in Omsk of having no interest in treating him, but in covering up an attempt on his life.

A clearly frustrated Yulia Navalny spoke to the media outside the hospital earlier Friday, calling the situation "outrageous" and saying that it is "clear authorities are trying to hide something from us. We demand they let us take him to doctors we trust," according to a translation by journalist Oliver Carroll of The Independent.

German doctors in Omsk were allowed to visit the hospital on Friday, but Yulia Navalny was not permitted to speak to them in person — witnesses say the doctors were whisked out of the facility and driven away. Police and security officials blocked journalists and Navalny's allies from approaching the vehicle.

Yarmysh posted a video from inside the hospital showing what she said were officers turning Yulia Navalny away when she went in search of the doctors. Some of those men were in plainclothes; others wore fatigues.

After the German doctors left, Yarmysh said via Twitter that despite the Russian doctors' statements, they had determined Navalny could be safely transferred to Berlin via the specially equipped plane.

On Friday, Alexander Murakhovsky, the chief physician at the Omsk hospital, said the staff has diagnosed Navalny with a metabolic disorder, linked to a drop in blood sugar.

"This is really contradictory information because officials have told Navalny's colleagues that, in fact, a toxic substance had been found and that it's so poisonous that people around him have to wear protective suits," NPR's Lucian Kim reports.

The diagnosis presents a paradox, said Anastasy Vasilyeva, Navalny's doctor who flew to Omsk on Thursday. If Navalny is suffering from a blood sugar imbalance rather than exposure to a potentially lethal toxin, she said, why not allow him to be moved to Berlin's Charité hospital?

Accusing Murakhovsky of "mean-spirited doublespeak," Vasilyeva said via Twitter that the metabolic disorder was caused by poison — and she offered her own explanation for the delay in approving his transfer.

"If he's been diagnosed with nothing more than a metabolic disorder, why not let Alexei go to Berlin? This is because they're waiting for three days so that his system clears the poison and it becomes impossible to detect in Europe the presence of a toxic substance in his body," Vasilyeva said, according to a translation by the Interfax news agency.

Both Vasilyeva and Yarmysh posted images from inside the Omsk hospital, seeking to counter officials who say conditions there are no worse than at the Charité clinic. Their photos show battered walls and hallways, and conditions that look to be less than pristine.

Navalny's aides and family say he was poisoned when he drank tea at an airport in Tomsk before taking off for Moscow on Thursday morning. He lapsed into unconsciousness soon afterward, forcing an emergency landing in Omsk — and prompting widespread speculation that yet another Putin foe had been poisoned.

Navalny is a powerful force for Russia's opposition, with a large online following that has grown despite scant coverage of him in state-approved media channels. He rose to fame by investigating corruption and mobilizing against Putin's regime — and he attempted to run against Putin in the 2018 presidential election but wasbarred from doing so.

This is the second time Navalny has possibly been poisoned. The first instance came last summer, when he was hospitalized days after being jailed for calling for street protests.

A number of Kremlin foes have been poisoned or killed during Putin's 20 years in power. Recent high-profile cases include the use of a Novichok nerve agent to poison former KGB spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the U.K. But Navalny's possible poisoning also brings to mind the targeted killing of Kremlin critic and former spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died after drinking tea that was laced with polonium-210 in a London hotel.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").