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Alexei Navalny’s Death Sentence: abuse, torturous conditions, and 308 days in a ‘punishment-isolation cell’

On February 16, Russia’s prisons authority (FSIN) reported the death of opposition politician Alexei Navalny. Immediately afterward, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Vladimir Putin had been made aware of the news. The 112 Telegram channel and the propagandist television network RT claimed that the ambulance crew that was called to attend to Navalny spent half an hour trying to resuscitate Putin’s most threatening political rival before declaring him dead due to a detached blood clot. Meanwhile, Alexander Polupan, a practicing emergency room doctor who was part of the team that resuscitated Navalny after he was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok by a group of FSB agents in August 2020, points out that diagnosing pulmonary embolism (the medical term for Navalny’s official cause of death) on the spot would have been impossible. He noted that the fact of this diagnosis appearing so quickly and being circulated by propaganda outlets so eagerly “raises questions.”

So far, neither Navalny's relatives nor his colleagues can provide any details. What exactly caused the death (and under what circumstances it happened) is unknown. The only thing that can be said with certainty now is that he lived under torturous conditions almost continuously after his arrest on January 17, 2021. Immediately upon his return to Russia following a months-long convalescence in Germany, Navalny was detained at passport control. Over the next three years, he spent more than 300 days in a “punishement-isolation cell”, had minimal access to medical care, and was deprived of communication with his family.

Navalny's poisoning

On Aug. 20, 2020, Alexei Navalny fell severely ill on his flight back to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk, where he had been working with supporters in advance of upcoming local elections. The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, where paramedics transported the unconscious Navalny from the runway to the “toxicoreanimation” department of City Clinical Hospital No. 1, where he was put into an artificial coma.

Two days later, on Aug. 22, Navalny was evacuated to the Charite clinic in Berlin for treatment. On Sep. 2, the German government cited research by a special Bundeswehr laboratory as part of a statement alleging that Navalny had been poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent while on Russian soil. (The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has placed nerve agents of the Novichok variety on its list of banned compounds, but the variety used to poison Navalny had been modified in order to differ slightly from any substance that was already on the list). The presence of Novichok in Navalny’s body was confirmed by French and Swedish laboratories.

Navalny and his family at Charité, Berlin
Navalny and his family at Charité, Berlin

On Dec. 14, 2020, The Insider and Bellingcat published a joint investigation in which they named the Russian FSB officers who had carried out Navalny’s poisoning. They also published the confession of a member of that assassination team, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, who spoke in great detail about the operation. Kudryavtsev’s interlocutor in that conversation was none other than Navalny, who presented himself as an aide to Russian Security Council head Nikolay Patrushev and claimed he needed first-hand insights into why the mission had failed. Kudryavtsev went into detail about how Novichok had been applied to the target’s underwear after members of the team broke into his hotel room, and he added that members of the traffic police in Omsk had helped FSB officers remove any traces of the chemical agent after the hospital made its official diagnosis that the patient had simply been suffering from low blood sugar levels. The member of the FSB assassination squad reasoned that Navalny's life had been saved by a combination of the pilots’ snap decision to request an emergency landing and by the paramedics’ choice of treatment — atropine, which works to counteract the effects of chemical nerve agents.

Russian authorities have denied any allegation of the Russian state’s involvement in the poisoning, citing the fact that no toxins were found in Navalny's tests conducted in Russia. The Russian Prosecutor General's Office stated that there were no grounds for the opening of a criminal case over the poisoning. The Russian Foreign Ministry called Navalny's poisoning with Novichok «a fantastic story, initiated at the behest of Berlin by its Euro-Atlantic allies together with the leadership of the OPCW Technical Secretariat according to a pre-planned conspiracy scenario.»

Return to Russia and arrest

After his rehabilitation in Germany, Navalny returned to Russia on Jan. 17, 2021, where he was detained upon arrival at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport on charges of violating the terms of his probation in the Yves Rocher criminal case, a politically motivated “fraud” conviction dating back to 2014.

Navalny saying goodbye to his wife before crossing Russia's national border at the airport
Navalny saying goodbye to his wife before crossing Russia's national border at the airport

On Jan. 18, 2021, Navalny was sentenced to 30 days' detention by a court at the Moscow police station where he was in custody. Navalny was then transferred to the Matrosskaya Tishina pre-trial detention center. The first wave of mass protests followed on Jan. 23, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets in hundreds of cities in Russia and abroad.

On Feb. 2, the judge of the Simonovsky District Court in Moscow granted a request by state prosecutors to replace Navalny's suspended sentence with an actual one of 2 years and 8 months, to be served in a “general regime” (medium-security) penal colony. On the same day, protests and arrests resumed across Russia.

On Feb. 25, it was announced that Navalny had been transferred out from the pre-trial detention center in Matrosskaya Tishina, but his location remained unknown for several days. On Feb. 27, his transfer to IK-2 in Pokrov in the Vladimir Region was confirmed. Torture and ill-treatment in this colony were reported by many former prisoners.

Deteriorating health

On Mar. 24, Navalny's associate Leonid Volkov reported that the opposition leader's health was deteriorating. He said that he had severe pain in his back and had lost feeling in one leg. Navalny’s colleagues demanded that the prison authorities arrange for an independent doctor to attend to him. On Mar. 25, FSIN reported that Navalny had undergone a medical examination on Mar. 24, according to which “his state of health was assessed as stable and satisfactory.”

Following this, more than 150 journalists and cultural figures appealed to the head of the FSIN regarding Navalny's deteriorating health, with opposition lawyer Olga Mikhailova reporting that Navalny was in an “extremely unfavorable” condition for the fourth straight week. Later, the opposition leader said that he had been subjected to “torture with insomnia” in the colony. Alexei Navalny's wife, Yulia, appealed to Vladimir Putin to release her husband.

On Mar. 26, Navalny reported back problems. The politician suggested that his back pain had been caused by a pinched nerve that itself had resulted “from constant sitting in detention centers [...] in a crouched position.” His back problems made it “difficult and very painful” for him to get out of bed, and the sensation in his right leg had still not returned. Navalny said a prison doctor examined him and prescribed two ibuprofen tablets, but did not give a diagnosis.

At the same time, Russian doctors published an open letter to the Federal Penitentiary Service and the “political leadership of the country.” In it, they expressed their fear that the lack of medical care would lead to severe consequences for Navalny's health. The doctors also suggested that this could all be due to a complication after the poisoning, which could have developed into a disease as a result of incomplete rehabilitation.

Navalny was still not granted access to a doctor, and the prisoner declared a hunger strike on Mar. 31 in order to pressure officials to provide him with medical care. By that time his left leg had also begun to lose sensation.

On Apr. 19, Navalny was transferred from the Pokrovsk IK-2 colony to the inpatient ward of the Vladimir prison hospital, where he was examined by “civilian” doctors from the region. Four days later, on Apr. 23, Navalny announced the end of his hunger strike. His examination revealed two herniated discs in his spine, cysts in his liver, gall bladder congestion, changes in his pancreas, and nerve sensitivity disorders in his legs.

No family visits

In 2022, Navalny was denied the privilege of receiving letters from his relatives. In 2023, Alexei Navalny's family (including his parents, wife and two children) filed a lawsuit after their requests to visit him were repeatedly refused.

At that time, Navalny himself drew attention to the fact that he had not been granted a single visit in the past year — this despite the fact that Russian law entitled him to six visits annually: three “long” visits involving personal contact over the course of three days, and three “short” visits conducted through a glass barrier and lasting for four hours each.

“So the Navalny family became a class action plaintiff. I know everything about our legal system and I have no illusions. This is a matter of principle: I have the right to see my family at least a few times a year. And a question of the future: one day, even after years, these cases will be reviewed by an honest court. Let the materials be ready.”

Accusations of fraud

On Mar. 22, a court sentenced Alexei Navalny to 9 years in a “strict regime” colony after finding him guilty of “fraud and insulting the court.” An external session of Moscow’s Lefortovo District Court was held directly in IK-2 in Pokrov, where Navalny had already served his sentence in the Yves Rocher case. Prior to sentencing, prosecutor Nadezhda Tikhonova requested 13 years in a strict regime colony. Vladimir Putin had previously promoted the judge in Navalny's case.

Navalny was accused of using donations collected by the Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF) and by his own headquarters for personal use. (He was also accused of slandering a WWII veteran who had appeared in a pro-Putin advertisement, and Navalny’s on-screen frustration during a hearing in that case left him liable to charges of contempt of court — in particular for his use of the phrases “Obersturmbahnführer,” “you’re such shameless people, a bunch of thieves,” and “underhanded grandpa peddler.”)

Sixteen prosecution witnesses were questioned during the embezzlement trial, which lasted more than a month. Among the purported victims was former ACF employee Fyodor Gorozhanko, who called the charges against Navalny absurd and said that investigators had pressured him during questioning. Another purported victim, Mikhail Kostenko, said during the hearing that he had no claims against Navalny. When reading the verdict, Judge Margarita Kotova did not mention these testimonies.

Nearly 30 witnesses who regularly donated to ACF spoke in favor of the defense. All of them highlighted the transparency of the Foundation's work and the responsibility with which it had handled their donations.

The prosecution’s evidence in the contempt of court case was not notably stronger, relying on a “linguistic analysis” from an “expert” named Natalia Kryukova who had no specialized training in that field. Kryukova singled out Navalny’s phrase “Oh my God” as having been offensive, as the intonation with which these words were uttered held criminal significance — at least in her expert opinion. Navalny called the charges against him fabricated.

The “extremist community” case

In September 2021, the Russian Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against Alexei Navalny and several of his close associates (including Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov) for the alleged “creation and leadership of an extremist community” (Part 1 of Article 282.1 of the Russian Criminal Code) and “participation in an extremist community” (Part 2 of Article 282.1 of the Russian Criminal Code).

On Jan. 25, 2022, the Russian Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring) added Alexei Navalny to its list of “confirmed terrorists and extremists.”

Alexei Navalny was charged with organizing an “extremist community,” along with several other articles of the Russian Criminal Code. In August 2023, he was sentenced to 19 years in a special regime colony. Daniel Kholodny, the technical director of Navalny’s YouTube channel Navalny Live, was sentenced to a nine-year prison term in the same case.

Transfer to the Far North

In early December of last year, Navalny’s legal team lost contact with their imprisoned leader. FSIN later reported that he had “left the territory of the colony” in the Vladimir Region — without specifying where exactly he was sent. Nineteen days later, Navalny was confirmed to have been transferred to the IK-3 prison (nicknamed “Polar Wolf”) in the settlement of Kharp in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in Russia’s Far North.

“Polar Wolf” is one of Russia’s most northern and remote prisons. Platon Lebedev, Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s business partner, was one of IK-3’s inmates.

“Conditions there are harsh — it’s a ‘special regime’ colony in the permafrost zone. It's very difficult to get there, and there are no letter delivery systems such as FSIN-Pismo or Zonatelecom. The lawyer was there today. He saw Alexei. The lawyer was not allowed in right away either,” commented Navalny associate Ivan Zhdanov on Dec. 25.

Penal colony IK-3 in Kharp
Penal colony IK-3 in Kharp

In Zhdanov’s opinion, the decision on the politician's transfer to IK-3 was probably made back in April, when the head of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service, Arkady Gostev, paid the facility an official visit. The Insider described the conditions at Kharp’s IK-3 in detail in a piece from mid-January.

27 stints in the SHIZO

During his imprisonment, Navalny practically never left the punishment-isolation cell (known in Russian by its abbreviation “SHIZO”). He was released from his penultimate stint in the SHIZO on Feb. 11 before being sentenced to a new 15-day punishment on Feb. 14, as per a report by Navalny’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh.

Up until his reported death on Feb. 16, 2024, Navalny had endured 308 total days in the SHIZO since being taken into custody at the airport back in January 2021.

Navalny’s last public appearance

On Feb. 15, 2024, Navalny was present at a court hearing via video link. He showed no visible signs of health problems that day, even joking with the judge and security officers present at the hearing.

Navalny's lawyer Leonid Solovyov also commented that he had visited Navalny on Wednesday and “everything was normal then.”

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