Plane carrying Alexei Navalny leaves Russia for Germany

Prominent Kremlin critic, who is in coma after a suspected poisoning, is being evacuated to Berlin for medical care.

A plane carrying a prominent Russian politician who is in a coma after a suspected poisoning has left the Siberian city of Omsk for Germany, according to his spokeswoman. 

The plane took off just after 8am local time (02:00 GMT) on Saturday, after more than 24 hours of wrangling over Alexei Navalny’s condition and treatment, with the opposition leader’s allies accusing Russian authorities of trying to stop his evacuation.

Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokeswoman, said the politician was transferred to an ambulance early on Saturday and driven to the airport. 

“The plane carrying Alexei is flying to Berlin,” she said on Twitter.

“Many thanks to everyone for their support. The fight for Alexei’s life and health is just beginning and there is a long way to go, but at least the first step has been taken.”

Navalny’s wife, Yulia, was also on board the flight, Yarmysh said. 

One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics, Navalny was admitted to an intensive care unit in Omsk on Thursday. His supporters believe that tea he drank was laced with poison – and that the Kremlin is behind both his illness and the delay in transferring him to a top German hospital.

Russian doctors say there is no evidence of poisoning, and the Kremlin denied the authorities tried to prevent the transfer from happening.

Even after German specialists arrived on a plane equipped with advanced medical equipment on Friday morning at his family’s behest, Navalny’s physicians in Omsk said he was too unstable to move.

Navalny’s supporters denounced that as a ploy by authorities to stall until any poison in his system would no longer be traceable. The Omsk medical team relented only after a charity that had organised the medevac plane revealed that the German doctors examined the politician and said he was fit to be transported.

Deputy chief doctor of the Omsk hospital Anatoly Kalinichenko then told reporters that Navalny’s condition had stabilised and that physicians “didn’t mind” transferring the politician, given that his relatives were willing “to take on the risks”. 

The Kremlin denied resistance to the transfer was political, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that it was purely a medical decision. However, the reversal came as international pressure on Russia’s leadership mounted.

On Thursday, leaders of France and Germany said the two countries were ready to offer Navalny and his family any and all assistance and insisted on an investigation into what happened. On Friday, European Union spokeswoman Nabila Massrali added that the bloc was urging Russian authorities to allow him to be taken abroad.

Also on Friday, the European Court of Human Rights said it was considering a request from Navalny’s supporters that it urge the Russian government to let the politician be moved.

The most prominent member of Russia’s opposition, Navalny campaigned to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election but was barred from running. Since then, he has been promoting opposition candidates in regional elections, challenging members of the ruling party, United Russia.

His Anti-Corruption Foundation has been exposing graft among government officials, including some at the highest level. But he had to shut the foundation last month after a financially devastating lawsuit from a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin.

Ariel Cohen, senior fellow at The Atlantic Council, told Al Jazeera the suspected poisoning of Navalny was not the first time that critics of the Kremlin have been targeted in such a way.

He noted the assassination of Russian politician Boris Nemstov in 2015, the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who died in 2006 after drinking a cup of tea laced with radioactive plutonium, as well as the case of Sergei Skripal, a Russian spy who spent weeks in critical condition after being poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok in the British city of Salisbury.

“So clearly, being an outspoken opposition leader or being a corruption fighter or a whistleblower in Russia is a dangerous business indeed,” Cohen said.

“Navalny was doing a lot of work exposing corruption, including at the highest level … and this is what they do to retaliate against their critics.”

Navalny fell ill while flying back to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk where had met allies ahead of regional elections next month. His plane made an emergency landing in Omsk, and he was taken on a stretcher, motionless, from the plane and rushed to the hospital.

His team made arrangements to transfer him to Charite, a clinic in Berlin that has a history of treating famous foreign leaders and dissidents.

While his supporters and family members continue to insist that Navalny was poisoned, doctors in Omsk denied that and put forth another theory.

The hospital’s chief doctor, Alexander Murakhovsky, said in a video published by Omsk news outlet NGS55 that a metabolic disorder was the most likely diagnosis and that a drop in blood sugar may have caused Navalny to lose consciousness.

But Dr Anastasia Vasilyeva, who has ties to Navalny, said that diagnosing the politician with a “metabolic disorder” says nothing about what may have caused it – and it could have been the result of a poisoning.

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