Opposition leader Alexei Navalny — who has just begun a two-and-a-half year jail sentence — is already suffering from health problems. Not only is Navalny experiencing severe back pain, the cause of which is unclear, but his lawyers claim prison doctors are refusing him treatment. At the same time, Navalny’s colleagues are experimenting with new ways to organise rallies in his support.
- Navalny’s wife and lawyers spoke publicly about his health problems Thursday. Lawyer Olga Mikhailova, who visited the politician, said Navalny is suffering serious pain in his back, and his right leg has “almost stopped functioning”. Another of his lawyers, Vadim Kobzev, said Navalny has been complaining of pain every day for a month, but the medical staff refuse to give him anything more than a couple of painkillers. “This is not merely a lack of treatment, but a deliberate strategy to undermine his health,” Kobzev said.
- Later the same day, Navalny published two appeals to the head of Russia’s prison service. In one, he described his symptoms, said his treatment was a mockery and demanded an examination from a specialist doctor. In the second, he complained of sleep deprivation and said he is woken every hour during the night, ostensibly to ensure he has not escaped.
- Navalny is serving his sentence at the notorious IK-2 penal colony, which is known for being one of the toughest in Russia. Conditions in the prison — located in the town of Pokrov in Vladimir Region outside Moscow — were described in detail by media outlet Mediazona. People who served sentences there said it is “as isolated from the outside world as possible”. There are reportedly no beatings or torture, but prisoners are subject to stringent and inhumane rules and face punishments for every minor infraction.
- “Nobody laid a finger on me,” said nationalist Dmitry Demushkin, who spent two years in IK-2. “But they create an environment where it feels like you are always late. You have to hurry all the time, you need to do everything at the double, running here and there. It feels like you should have plenty of time, but in fact you have none. You have a couple of minutes to get up and make the bed properly, you have two minutes to put on your winter clothes and run outside.” According to Demushkin, he lost seven stone in weight during his sentence.
- Navalny’s colleagues who remain at liberty are trying to come up with new ways to protest, and out-maneuver the police (who cracked down on pro-Navalny rallies in February). Navalny’s chief of staff Leonid Volkov announced Tuesday a ‘Big Spring Rally’, but the date, time and format will only be revealed when 500,000 people sign up on a special website. By Saturday, the number of potential participants stood at 329,000. Pro-Kremlin Telegram channels insist that these are mostly bots. In April or May, we will find out if they are right.
Why the world should care
It’s important to remember that Navalny’s prison conditions are not necessarily the result of orders from the Kremlin – this is just the normal functioning of Russia’s penal system. On the other hand, it would be simple for the authorities to ensure Navalny receives proper medical treatment.