Moscow – Russia’s penitentiary service said Monday it was transferring ailing Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny to a prison hospital, as the EU warned it would hold Moscow responsible for the state of his health.
The United States on Sunday threatened Russia with “consequences” if President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent domestic opponent dies in jail.
Navalny launched a hunger strike three weeks ago and his private doctors warned over the weekend he could pass away at “any minute.”
Russia’s prison service, which has barred Navalny’s own medical team from visiting him, said its doctors had decided to move him to a medical facility at another penal colony outside Moscow.
But it insisted the anti-corruption campaigner’s condition was “satisfactory,” and said he was taking vitamin supplements as part of medical treatment.
Fears over Navalny’s fate have further worsened relations between Moscow and the West, already strained over a Russian troop build-up along the border with Ukraine and a diplomatic row with EU member state the Czech Republic.
As the European Union’s 27 foreign ministers held virtual talks Monday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc held the Russian authorities responsible for Navalny’s health.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas added that the EU would be watching closely to see that Navalny was getting the medical care he needed.
And Britain’s foreign minister Dominic Raab tweeted that Russia “must grant him immediate access to independent medical care & release him from his politically motivated imprisonment.”
The Kremlin has dismissed the outcry from foreign leaders over the condition of the 44-year-old, who last year came close to death after being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok.
“The health of convicts in the Russia Federation cannot and should not be a topic concerning them,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Navalny was arrested in Russia in January after returning from treatment in Germany for the nerve agent poisoning in August, which he says was carried out by Moscow — an accusation denied by Putin’s administration.
Sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for embezzlement — charges he says are politically motivated — Navalny began a hunger strike on March 31 demanding medical treatment for back pain and numbness to his hands and legs.
The EU in October imposed sanctions on six Russian officials over the nerve agent attack, and in February added another four individuals over Navalny’s arrest and sentencing.
Navalny’s supporters have called for major protests across Russia on Wednesday to demand his release, the rallies scheduled just hours after Putin delivers his state-of-the-nation address.
Russian police — who detained thousands during earlier protests over Navalny’s initial jailing — warned people not to demonstrate, saying officers would take “all necessary measures to maintain law and order.”
Also on Monday, Russia’s anti-monopoly regulator said it was investigating YouTube for making “biased” decisions about comment moderation on the video social media platform which Navalny has often used for calls to protest.
Navalny’s spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, tweeted on Monday that she had received an email from YouTube notifying her that Russia’s media regulator had ordered the company to delete a video calling for Wednesday’s protest.
The fraught ties with Russia dominated the agenda as EU foreign ministers held their regular monthly meeting.
They held talks with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba over the Russian troop build-up along the country’s eastern border and the surge in fighting with Russian-backed separatists.
Borrell said more than 150,000 Russian troops were now massed along Ukraine’s borders and in the annexed Crimea peninsula.
However Borrell refused to give a source for that number and Monday evening the online text of his speech was updated changing the number to 100,000, with an asterix noting it was a correction.
Kiev has been battling Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and fighting intensified early this year, effectively shredding a ceasefire agreed last July.
On Twitter, Kuleba proposed more sanctions “to discourage Moscow from further escalation.”
Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis argued the EU should show it was willing to impose sanctions if Moscow crosses any more “red lines.”
But Borrell said there were currently no proposals for new sanctions.
EU foreign ministers are also set to be briefed on the new tensions between Russia and the Czech Republic.
Moscow on Sunday ordered 20 Czech diplomats to leave the country, a day after Prague announced it was expelling 18 Russian diplomats identified as agents of the SVR and GRU security services.
Czech authorities accused them of involvement in a 2014 explosion on its soil at a military ammunition warehouse that killed two people.
Czech police said they were seeking two Russians in connection with the explosion — and that the photos in the passports they carried matched those used by suspects in the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018.
The EU said in a statement it “stands in full support and solidarity with the Czech Republic and deplores Russia’s response to expel 20 Czech diplomats.”
“The European Union is deeply concerned about the repeating negative pattern of dangerous malign behaviour by Russia in Europe,” it added.
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