By Robyn Dixon,
MOSCOW — Russia’s most prominent Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny, was in a critical condition and undergoing full tests at a German hospital Saturday after an emergency medical flight from Russia with suspected poisoning.
Navalny, in a coma since collapsing early Thursday, arrived in a convoy of ambulances under a heavy security escort at the Charité hospital following a flight from Siberia that was tracked closely by international media.
Navalny, 44, was stricken on a plane traveling from the Siberian city of Tomsk to Moscow. His spokeswoman and others suspect he was the target of a deliberate poisoning — a method used before by Russian agents — possibly in tea he drank at an airport cafe.
Jaka Bizilj of Cinema for Peace Foundation, the German group that funded Navalny’s flight to Berlin, told reporters that Navalny’s condition was “very critical” and “worrying.” Earlier, he told Germany’s Bild newspaper that Navalny was in a stable condition during the flight, which was allowed by Russian officials after previously insisting Navalny was too ill to travel.
Bizilj called Navalny’s move to care in Berlin as “only a small interim success.
“The decisive question if he survives and survives without lasting damage,” he said.
A statement from the Charité hospital said a “comprehensive medical exam” was underway. “Once that is complete, and after speaking with the family, the medical staff will provide further details about the sickness and the next steps.” the statement continued.
“The exam will take some time and we ask for your patience,” the statement said. The hospital said no further updates on Navalny’s condition would be offered Saturday.
Russian medics put opposition politician Alexei Navalny into an ambulance to transport him from an emergency care hospital to an airport, in Omsk, Russia, on Saturday.
A German government spokesman told German media the government “hopes the treatment will lead to an improvement and enable a complete recovery.”
The Thursday morning flight on which Navalny fell ill was diverted to Omsk, where local doctors at first refused his colleagues and doctor access to him, then refused to allow him to be evacuated before finally buckling amid intense international scrutiny.
Navalny’s wife Yulia appealed directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday in a letter requesting he be allowed to leave.
Navalny is the latest in a succession of Kremlin critics who have fallen mysteriously ill or died with poisoning or suspected poisoning.
On Friday, Alexander Murakhovsky, chief physician at Omsk Emergency Hospital No. 1, denied permission for Navalny to be transferred to German care, prompting Navalny’s colleagues to accuse authorities of trying to cover up a proper investigation of the suspected poisoning.
As international scrutiny of the case mounted, Murakhovsky reversed his position and announced that Navalny could fly. He said Navalny had not been poisoned but had been diagnosed with a metabolic disease caused by low blood sugar.
Murakhovsky also said traces of industrial chemicals had been found on Navalny’s clothes and hands without offering further explanation.
The Omsk region Ministry of Health announced Saturday that no signs of known toxins such were found in Navalny’s system, including barbiturates, strychnine, synthetic poisons and oxybutyrates, used to treat conditions such as narcolepsy.
The ministry said traces of alcohol and caffeine were found in Navalvy’s bloodstream. Anastasia Vasilyeva, head of the Alliance of Doctors, an independent group of doctors aligned with Navalny, responded that Navalny never drinks alcohol.
Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh called the refusal to allow Navalny to depart an attempt to take his life, suggesting on Twitter that authorities wanted to thwart an investigation by stalling “until the poison in his body can no longer be traced.”
She said on Saturday that the confirmation that Navalny was in a stable condition throughout the flight only confirmed that nothing had ever prevented Navalny from being evacuated when he urgently needed it.
Another ally, Leonid Volkov, wrote Friday: “They have an order: Don’t let him go so that it will be impossible for an independent laboratory to confirm poison.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Foreign Secretary Dominque Raab expressed concern Friday about what had happened to Navalny.
Among those who tweeted support for Navalny were actor John Cusack, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and co-host of “The View,” Meghan McCain.
President Trump said, “We haven’t seen it yet, we’re looking at it, and Mike [Pompeo] is going to be reporting to me soon.” Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul criticized Trump’s failure to express concern over the case, comparing Navalny to American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, South African freedom fighter and president Nelson Mandela and the leader of the Indian nonviolent struggle against British colonialism Mohandas Gandhi.
“While Navalny has not succeeded yet, there should be no doubt that his cause is good and just,” McFaul wrote, adding, “Vladimir Putin is evil. Over the past 20 years, Russia’s current leader has constructed a ruthless dictatorship.”
He said Trump had shown “not a word of concern, let alone outrage.”
“In the clear divide between good and evil in Russia,” McFaul continued, “Trump is on the wrong side.”
Navalny is Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, known for his scathing YouTube exposes of corruption and graft by Russian politicians, bureaucrats and oligarchs.
He has been frequently jailed for organizing unsanctioned protests. In July, he was forced to shut down his Anti-Corruption Foundation after it was crippled by fines. He pledged to immediately start up a new organization that would do the same work.
In March, authorities froze his bank account and those of all his family members including his parents, daughter and even his 11-year-old son Zakhar. He was barred from running in a presidential election in 2018.
Among those believed poisoned were crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya who exposed Russian atrocities in Chechnya, and fell ill on a flight in 2004 after drinking tea. She survived but was shot dead outside her apartment in 2006.
Alexander Litvinenko, a former intelligence agent, was poisoned with Polonium-210 while drinking tea in a London hotel. Litvinenko often criticized corruption in Russia under Putin. A British inquiry later found that Putin probably approved his murder.
In 2018, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia nearly died when Russian agents poisoned them with the deadly Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok, or The Newcomer.
Pussy Riot member Pyotr Verzilov, who ran onto the pitch dressed as police with other members of the group at the World Cup soccer final in front of Putin and world leaders in 2018, fell ill with suspected poisoning just weeks later.
Like Navalny he was evacuated to Berlin’s Charité hospital for treatment. Doctors there said it was “highly plausible” that he had been poisoned.
Other Kremlin opponents, including prominent opposition leader Boris Nemstov, have been assassinated. Nemtsov was shot dead on a Moscow bridge near the Kremlin in 2015, walking home after eating out.
William Glucroft in Berlin contributed to this story.