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Aleksei Navalny: Russia’s opposition leader who could be the latest victim of poisoning

Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Aleksei A. Navalny, is in a coma after he consumed a cup of tea that is suspected to be poisoned. Who is Navalny?

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 23, 2020 10:15:19 am
Navalny, navalny poisoning, novichokNavalny, who is a lawyer-turned-activist, came to prominence in 2008 after he started exposing corruption in Russian politics through a blog.

On Thursday, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Aleksei A. Navalny, was put on ventilator support in a Siberian hospital after he consumed a cup of tea that is suspected to be poisoned. Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh said on Twitter that while Navalny was returning to Moscow by air, he felt unwell as a result of which the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk. She added that Navalny has toxic poisoning.

“We assume that Alexei was poisoned with something mixed into the tea. It was the only thing that he drank in the morning. Doctors say the toxin was absorbed faster through the hot liquid. Alexey is now unconscious,” Yarmysh wrote on the social media platform.

Last year, Navalny who is a vocal critic of president Vladimir Putin was hospitalised after he suffered an allergic reaction in jail, possibly from an unknown chemical substance. Two years before this, Navalny was doused with a bright green liquid in the Siberian city of Barnaul by an assailant who pretended to shake his hand.

Who is Aleksei Navalny?

Navalny, who is a lawyer-turned-activist came to prominence in 2008 after he started exposing corruption in Russian politics through a blog and in 2018, he was barred from standing against Putin in the presidential elections.

He has also been arrested on multiple occasions and since he started political campaigning, Navalny has spearheaded many anti-corruption rallies in Russia and is considered to be the face of the opposition in Russia, a country that has long been known to eliminate dissidents and spies by poisoning them.

Also read | France, Germany offer to help, after Alexei Navalny is allegedly poisoned

Other alleged poisonings by Russia

Sergei Skripal: On March 4, 2018, former Russian spy Skripal and his daughter Yulia Skripal were found unconscious on a bench in the British city Salisbury after they were poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent Novichok. Both of them have since recovered, including police officer Nick Bailey, one of the first responders who fell seriously ill after being exposed to the nerve agent.

The only person who died from the exposure was a 44-year-old woman who died a few months later when she came into contact with the nerve agent. The woman was exposed to it after she came in contact with a counterfeit perfume bottle that had been discarded in Salisbury.

In 2006, Skripal was sentenced to 13 years in prison after he was accused of spying for Britain. At the time, Russia claimed that Britain’s intelligence service MI6 had paid him $100,000 for revealing the identities of Russian secret agents in Europe. After his conviction, Skripal was pardoned in 2010 by then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev.

After the poisoning, all Russian intelligence officers working under diplomatic cover in the UK and many other countries were expelled. The US expelled over 60 such officers. The investigation led by the UK government later revealed that the poisonings were an attempted assassination attempt carried out by agents of the Russian intelligence service called the GRU.

Skripals’ poisonings are also the subject of the BBC One drama titled, “The Salisbury Poisonings”. According to some news reports, Skripal and his daughter are now staying in New Zealand under new identities.

Pyotr Verzilov: A few months after Skripal, an anti-Kremlin activist and Putin critic who is a member of the Russian protest group called Pussy Riot was taken ill after a poisoning attempt that Verzilov alleged was carried out by Russian intelligence services. After he fell ill in September 2018, he was evacuated to Berlin from Moscow where doctors confirmed that his symptoms were consistent with poisoning.

He told the BBC in 2018 that the reasons why they might have tried to poison him could be his participation in a pitch invasion during the 2018 FIFA World Cup final, after which Verzilov and three other members of Pussy Riot were jailed briefly. The other reason cited by Verzilov was for investigating the case of three Russian journalists who were “murdered” in the Central African Republic (CAR).

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Vladimir Kara-Murza: In 2017, Putin critic and journalist Kara-Murza fell into a coma after a suspected poisoning attempt. In 2015, Kara-murza nearly died and suffered sudden kidney failure after another alleged poisoning attempt. According to a report in The New York Times, after the 2015 attempt, a French lab found elevated levels of heavy metals in his blood. Kara-Murza has recovered since then and resides in Moscow.

Alexander Litvinenko: Former spy Litvinenko, who was being paid by the MI6 and was investigating Spanish links to Russia, was killed in November 2006 after he ingested a fatal dose of polonium 210 while drinking tea at Millenium Hotel in London. At the time he was meeting with Russian politician Andrei Lugovoy and his associate Dmitri Kovtun. Lugovoy is considered to be one of the main suspects.

Litvinenko did not survive, while Russia continues to deny any involvement in the incident. Litvinenko was an officer in the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor of the KGB and was dismissed in 1998 after he made public allegations of illegal activity within the FSB. He left Russia in 2000 and in 2001 was given asylum in Britain.

An inquiry report into his death released in 2016 by the British inquiry concluded, “Taking full account of all the evidence and analysis available to me, I find that the FSB operation to kill Mr. Litvinenko was probably approved by Mr. Patrushev and also by President Putin.”

Viktor Yushchenko: In 2004, Yushchenko was poisoned in the midst of an election campaign, in which he was expected to defeat the Russia-backed candidate. Yushchenko ingested dioxin, a chemical found in Agent Orange while he was eating dinner with the head of Ukraine’s security service.

The poisoning severely disfigured his face and his test results showed that he suffered from chloracne, which is caused by exposure to toxic chemicals. Yushchenko eventually recovered and went on to win the presidential elections that year. He accused the Ukrainian authorities of trying to poison him.

Russia has long been known to use poison as a way of eliminating political dissidents and spies. An article published by the Atlantic Council, a think tank, says many victims of Putin’s assassins, “serve as useful symbols of what happens to anyone accused of betraying or otherwise cheating the Kremlin.” Significantly, not all assassination attempts have been successful recently, suggesting declining professionalism, “as Russia seeks to deploy greater numbers of assassins abroad.”

Add to this that since the Cold War, the Soviet Union heavily invested in the development of poisons as a way of targetting enemies, an article in Foreign Policy says. In 1921, Laboratory 12 was established on the outskirts of Moscow and researched poisons, drugs and psychotropic substances, thereby giving the Kremlin an array of tools to choose from.

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