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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny poisoned in police custody, lawyer says

The incident follows the violent dispersal of a protest in Moscow called by the Kremlin critic

In this file photograph taken on January 16, 2018, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny looks on during an interview. AFP
In this file photograph taken on January 16, 2018, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny looks on during an interview. AFP

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was discharged from hospital and returned to prison on Monday, despite his lawyer’s concerns that he was poisoned in police custody.

Mr Navalny is serving a 30-day sentence for violating Russian protest laws by calling for the mass demonstrations that rocked the Russian capital this weekend during which police in riot gear arrested nearly 1,400 protesters demanding free elections.

Russians in the capital have mounted an increasingly animated campaign in recent weeks to voice their anger over a decision by election authorities to bar several high-profile opposition candidates from running in upcoming local elections in September.

Mr Navalny’s lawyer, Olga Mikhailova, told reporters outside the hospital on Monday afternoon that her client was "poisoned by some unknown chemical substance."

Earlier in the day, Mr Navalny’s doctor was granted access to examine him and attributed a rash, skin lesions and discharge from his eye to a reaction from an unknown chemical.

Mr Navalny, a former presidential hopeful and fierce Kremlin critic, was rushed to hospital on Sunday evening after suffering what the authorities said was an allergic reaction.

The opposition leader’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh described Mr Navalny as showing signs of an acute allergy with "severe swelling of the face and skin redness."

Ms Mikhailova wrote on Facebook on Sunday evening that her client's symptoms raised questions, given that he had never previously suffered from allergies. Reports that none of Mr Navalyn’s cell mates had been treated for allergies further increased suspicions.

The incident has raised alarm bells among the political opposition in Russia, which has been accused of carrying out poisonings to silence Kremlin critics. Russian spies were said by British intelligence to be behind the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom last year.

Dozens of Mr Navalny’s supporters gathered outside the hospital where the anti-corruption campaigner was being treated on Sunday evening and were violently dispersed when police in riot gear arrived to the scene. Ten of Mr Navalny’s supporters were detained, according to Reuters.

A live broadcast by a reporter for the liberal-leaning Dozhd television network who police detained while he was on air went viral on social media overnight on Sunday.

The mass protests on Saturday marked the largest violent crackdown in Moscow in recent years and sparked condemnation from the US embassy in the Russian capital.

Andrea Kalan, a spokesperson at the embassy wrote on Twitter that the authorities response was a breach of democratic values and the Russian law.

“The detention of over 1,000 peaceful protesters in Russia and use of disproportionate police force undermine the rights of citizens to participate in the democratic process.”

“Free elections & peaceful assembly are guaranteed in the Russian constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” she added.

German diplomats in Berlin on Monday weighed in with criticism saying they hoped Russia would release protesters still in police detention. The Meduza news website has reported that at least one demonstrator was charged with assaulting a police officer.

Several of the opposition candidates barred from running in the upcoming local elections in September, including Ilya Yashin, were detained ahead of Saturday’s demonstration for breaching protest laws and are due to receive verdicts in a Moscow court on Monday.

They are calling on residents in the capital to take to the streets again this weekend despite that authorities are unlikely to sanction the protest.

Anna Arutunyan, a senior analyst at the Crisis Group consultancy, says that even though the protests are ostensibly over free local elections, the Kremlin fears the protesters' motives are much more far-reaching.

“Protesters have leverage, but they are not about regime change, not necessarily. But the Kremlin thinks they are,” she wrote on Twitter. “[The Kremlin] sees them as inevitably organised from abroad ... part of the West's ‘hybrid war.’"

Updated: July 29, 2019 06:50 PM

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