Jailed Kremlin critic Navalny goes on hunger strike

File photo. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny gestures inside a glass cage prior to a hearing at the Babushkinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia, 20 February 2021. [Yuri Kochetkov/EPA/EFE]

Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on Wednesday (31 March) 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.

Navalny's penal colony, a Kremlin weapon to 'break' him

Until last week, the provincial town of Pokrov outside Moscow, lined with Soviet-era residential blocks and teetering wooden homes, had only one claim to fame: a monument to chocolate.

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.

The United State and European Union have imposed sanctions on Moscow for jailing Navalny and for allegedly ordering and executing last year’s poisoning, a charge Russia has denied.

Asked about the hunger strike, US State Department spokesman Ned Price called Navalny a “political prisoner” and renewed calls for his release.

“We will continue to seek to hold accountable those in Russia who may be responsible for the attempt on his life, for the repression against his peaceful supporters who have taken to the streets,” he said.

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.

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