By PATRICK REEVELL, ABC News
(MOSCOW) — Russian doctors have refused to allow the anti-Kremlin opposition leader Alexey Navalny to be evacuated from Siberia to Germany for treatment for suspected poisoning, prompting accusations from his colleagues that the Kremlin is trying to cover up that he might have been poisoned.
An air ambulance organized by the Berlin-based non-profit Cinema for Peace landed in Omsk on Friday morning and was ready to carry Navalny to the German capital for treatment at a hospital there, Navalny’s spokesman said.
But the head doctor at the Omsk hospital treating Navalny, Alexander Murakhovsky, told reporters the hospital would not release Navalny for transport, saying his condition did not currently allow it. Another doctor at the hospital said at the current time they also do not believe Navalny had been poisoned, saying no traces of poison have been found in his urine or blood.
“So at the present time, the diagnosis of poisoning, well, it probably remains in the back of our minds somewhere, but we don’t believe that the patients suffered poisoning,” deputy chief doctor, Anatoly Kalanichenko told reporters on camera. He said doctors were close now to confirming a different diagnosis.
Navalny’s colleagues, wife and personal doctor disagree, and accused doctors of blocking the evacuation and seeking to conceal Navalny’s poisoning at the order of the Kremlin.
“The ban of transferring Navalny is an attempt on his life, which right now is being committed by the doctors and the lying government, which have sanctioned it,” his spokeswoman Kyra Yarmysh tweeted.
It is “needed only so as to drag out the time and wait so that it will no longer be possible to detect the poison that’s in his system. Moreover, every hour of delay creates a critical threat to his life,” she wrote.
Navalny fell critically ill Thursday while flying from Siberia to Moscow, and was rushed to the hospital after the plane had to make an emergency landing in Omsk. He has been in a coma in intensive care since then and attached to a ventilator. His colleagues allege his sudden illness is the result of poisoning, perhaps from a cup of tea he drank in the airport.
The head of Navalny’s group, the Anti-Corruption Fund, Ivan Zhdanov, told reporters in Omsk on Friday morning that police had identified the substance used to poison Navalny but were refusing to tell his family its name. But Zhdanov said an officer had told them the substance was “very dangerous” not only to Navalny but also to those around him and that those near him were currently wearing protective suits.
Zhdanov said he and Navalny’s wife Yulia had been in the chief doctor’s office when a police officer from a department sent to oversee his transfer to the German air ambulance entered.
“The representative of the transport police came in and showed the phone to the doctor saying that that substance was found,” Zhdanov told reporters. “We asked the representative of the transport police who showed the phone to the doctor what was the substance found,” he said, saying the police officer told them she could not tell them because it fell under secrecy rules of the investigation. But the officer said, according to Zhdanov, “It is dangerous not only for Alexey’s life but for all people around him and all have to be in protective suits. She does not say more. We don’t know what the substance is.”
Navalny, 44, is Russia’s best-known anti-Kremlin opposition leader and is seen as perhaps Vladimir Putin’s most troublesome domestic critic. He has built a grass-roots movement based around investigations, usually released as videos, that have exposed alleged corruption among top officials and some of Russia’s most powerful business people, including members of Putin’s inner circle.
A number of Kremlin opponents have fallen victim to poisoning in recent years, including the former Russian double agent, Sergey Skripal, who was targeted with a nerve agent in the British town of Salisbury in 2018. Another prominent democracy activist, Vladimir Kara-Murza, nearly died after being poisoned twice in 2015 and 2017. And two years ago, Petr Verzilov, a member of the protest group Pussy Riot, was evacuated to Germany to be treated for a near-fatal poisoning.
Navalny has been detained by Russian police many times as well as attacked by pro-Kremlin activists. Last year, he was hospitalized with what his colleagues said was poisoning after he suffered severe inflammation of his face while serving a short jail term for protesting.
Navalny’s colleagues have accused the Kremlin of preventing his evacuation to Germany, where they say clinics have a better chance of detecting the substance used to poison him.
Zhdanov said doctors had been preparing documents and equipment to transfer him to the plane when they abruptly said they would not allow it.
The chief doctor, Murakhovsky, said it would take two more days to complete tests on what might have caused Navalny’s illness. He said so far, all tests had come back negative for poison.
Navalny’s condition had improved somewhat overnight, Murakhovsky said, but they had not yet fully succeeded in stabilizing him. He said he was not in touch with the Berlin hospital, where Navalny’s family want to evacuate him because he believed Russian doctors were adequate for now.
Navalny’s wife, Yulia, said at the press conference she believed the delay was part of a cover-up.
“We think that they do it to have time for the chemical substance which is in Alexey’s body to disappear,” she said.
A day earlier, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, had said it was ready to assist in Navalny being taken abroad if a request came. He said the Kremlin was aware of Navalny’s condition and had wished him a speedy recovering, saying if poisoning was confirmed, an investigation could be held.
Navalny’s spokeswoman Yarmysh said they were now demanding the Kremlin fulfill that offer of help. She tweeted they would also appeal to the European Court of Human Rights to oblige Russia not to hinder Navalny’s evacuation for treatment.
On Thursday, France and Germany’s leaders, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, offered to have Navalny treated in their countries.
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