Alexei Navalny, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, is in a coma in intensive care in a hospital in Siberia after allegedly being poisoned.
Mr Navalny, a vocal critic of the Kremlin, was returning to Moscow on a flight from Tomsk on Thursday when he fell ill shortly after take-off and lost consciousness after collapsing in the plane’s bathroom, said Kira Yarmysh, his spokeswoman.
Ms Yarmysh said she suspected Mr Navalny had been poisoned by something mixed into his tea at the airport. “It was the only thing he drank all morning. Doctors said that the toxin was absorbed more quickly through hot liquid.”
The aircraft made an emergency landing in the nearby city of Omsk, where Mr Navalny was taken to hospital and placed on a respirator. In a video posted by a fellow passenger on Instagram, Mr Navalny can be heard crying out in pain from the toilet as paramedics board the plane.
Local health officials said Mr Navalny was in a stable but critical condition, adding that doctors were “performing all necessary tests.”
Mr Navalny, 44, is the face of grassroots opposition to the Kremlin and is no stranger to threats for his activism. Last year he claimed he was poisoned with an unknown substance that provoked a severe allergic reaction while serving one of his many short jail sentences for protesting against Mr Putin.
In 2017, a pro-Kremlin activist attacked him with a chemical that left him partially blind in one eye.
On Thursday the Kremlin said an investigation would be launched if it was proved that Mr Navalny had been poisoned and that it would expedite any appeal for him to be sent abroad for medical treatment.
“First, we need to wait for the final tests that will help doctors determine what caused this situation, this loss of consciousness,” Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, told reporters. “After that, if there is poisoning and there are appropriate statements . . . by law enforcement agencies, then there will be an investigation.”
He said Mr Putin had been kept informed of Mr Navalny’s condition, adding that if Mr Navalny applied for permission to fly abroad for treatment — despite almost all borders being closed owing to the coronavirus pandemic — the Kremlin was “ready to very quickly consider such appeals”.
“Of course, like any citizen of our country, we wish him a speedy recovery,” Mr Peskov said.
Mr Navalny’s family and aides want to transfer him to a toxicology hospital in Europe but, according to his personal doctor Anastasia Vasileva, have been denied the right to do so by the hospital in Omsk. Doctors said Mr Navalny’s condition meant he could not be transferred and said they needed “no help from outside”.
Ms Yarmysh said doctors initially told her Mr Navalny was suffering from poisoning with a toxic substance, then stopped providing her with information about his condition and began to “play for time”.
Anatoly Kalinichenko, deputy chief doctor of the hospital in Omsk where Mr Navalny was taken, told reporters that “there was no certainty that poisoning is the cause” but said it was “one of the versions” under consideration.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, said in a tweet: “Worried to hear about Alexei Navalny’s suspected poisoning. If confirmed, those responsible must be held to account. Wishing him a swift and full recovery.”
Russian newswire Interfax cited an “informed source” who claimed Mr Navalny had been poisoned with an “unknown psychedelic”. Baza, a news channel on messaging app Telegram that boasts of paying doctors and police officers for scoops, claimed that Mr Navalny had been poisoned with GHB, a date-rape drug.
Police in Omsk said they would investigate Mr Navalny’s possible poisoning. Ms Yarmysh said several officers appeared to take a statement from doctors treating Mr Navalny and refused to let her be present. “The doctors have clearly been banned from sharing any information at all. This is yet more confirmation that Alexei was poisoned and they are trying to cover it up,” she said.
Doctors initially refused to admit Mr Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, into the ward he was being treated on grounds that she could not prove they were related — despite a marriage stamp in her Russian ID — without their marriage certificate.
Staff later let her in but claimed that her husband’s condition did not allow him to be moved to another hospital.
State-run news agency Tass cited a law enforcement source who said police were not investigating whether Mr Navalny had been poisoned and “did not exclude that he drank or took something himself”.
S7, the airline with which Mr Navalny was flying, said he had not eaten or drunk anything while on board the plane. Tomsk’s airport told news agency RIA Novosti it would give police recordings from security cameras.
Mr Navalny claimed in an interview with the Financial Times last year that he and his family were harassed around the clock by men working for a “troll farm” allegedly owned by St Petersburg businessman Evgeny Prigozhin. His younger brother Oleg was jailed for three years in a case Mr Navalny described as “hostage-taking” in retaliation for his activism.
In 2016, anthropologist Sergei Mokhov, whose wife Lyubov Sobol is one of Mr Navalny’s top aides, was stabbed in the leg by assailants with a poison that caused him to lose consciousness. Police refused to investigate the attack on Mr Mokhov, who filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights.
Two years later, Petr Verzilov, publisher of news site Mediazona and an inspiration for dissident artists Pussy Riot, spent a month in intensive care after an unknown toxin cost him his ability to speak and much of his sight.
Journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza believes he was deliberately poisoned twice in three years with an unknown substance that left him near death.
Doctors were unable to determine what was apparently used to poison the men, while police did not establish any potential suspects.
“For the first few days the doctors were fighting for my life and weren’t sure I’d survive,” Mr Verzilov said on Twitter. “They haven’t even tried to investigate the attempt on my life for two years.”