Putin's rival Navalny is missing: What do we know?

Friday, 22 December 2023 (12:50 IST)
It's been weeks since the lawyers of Alexei Navalny were able to contact the Kremlin critic, who was serving a 19-year prison sentence in a Russian penal colony. Even his closest associates appear stumped — despite years of experience in grappling with Russia's police, courts and prisons, Navalny's team has been unable to locate him, or even determine if the politician is alive or dead.
Talking with DW Russian last week, the head of Navalny's anti-corruption watchdog FBK Ivan Zhdanov said Navalny was "most likely being transferred" to a different prison, but also emphasized his team knew "nothing" about the politician's fate. As time goes on, however, activists are growing increasingly worried, especially with Navalny appearing ill on camera just days before his disappearance in early December.
"No, we can't be sure [that Navalny is still alive]" Navalny's spokesperson Kira Yarmysh told German public broadcaster ZDF in an interview published on Wednesday.
"No prisoner had ever simply disappeared for so long, especially not such an important prisoner," she added.
Who is Alexei Navalny?
The 47-year-old has made a name for himself by publicly calling out graft at the top of the Kremlin hierarchy. He is the founder of the FBK, and was one of the leaders of the anti-government protests in 2011-2013, which culminated in him running for the mayor of Moscow in 2013. He has called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "madman" and said the ruling party in Russia was full of "crooks and thieves."
Over the years, Navalny has faced physical attacks, repeated arrests, investigations, and criminal proceedings, which he claims to be politically motivated. Most notably, he survived an assassination attempt in 2020 which involved the nerve agent Novichok.. After the Novichok poisoning, Russian officials agreed to fly comatose Navalny out to Germany for treatment, with Navalny waking up and eventually recovering in Berlin's Charite hospital. However, with Navalny staying in Germany for several months after his release from the hospital, Russian authorities warned he was in violation of probation terms of an earlier court case and threatened to arrest him upon return.
Despite the warning, Navalny chose to return to Moscow in January 2021. Russian authorities detained him at the airport, and the politician has been behind bars ever since. While serving the sentence for the parole violation, he was sentenced to nine years for embezzlement and contempt of court. Another court ruling in August this year saw his prison term prolonged to 19 years over additional charges including extremism.
In October, three lawyers who once represented Navalny were detained on charges of being involved in an extremist group, and are still in pre-trial detention. Navalny and his allies have decried the move as an attempt at intimidation.
What do we know about Navalny's disappearance?
On December 6, Navalny was due to meet his defense team in the penal colony in Kovrov, some 260 kilometers (162 miles) northeast of Moscow. His lawyers reached the facility and waited, but were not allowed to see him. The same scenario played out in the next two days.
Navalny also missed multiple court appointments in the days following his apparent disappearance. Initially, Russian officials said power outages prevented them from establishing a video link to the courtroom and allowing Navalny to participate. Eventually, they announced that the jailed politician had been "moved" from Kovrov to a different correctional facility outside of the administrative region.
The authorities have yet to provide the name and the location of the new facility. In a court document dated December 12, correctional officials pledged that Navalny's arrival to the new site will be reported "within the framework of the existing legislation." At least two court hearing have been postponed until January.
Where could Navalny be?
The terse comment from Russia's correctional authority provides a sliver of hope for Navalny's supporters, as it could be interpreted as a clue that the Kremlin critic is currently being transferred to a new prison.
Notably, the August verdict against Navalny contained a stipulation of him being relocated to a "special regime" penal colony. In Russia, these maximum security colonies are usually reserved for particularly dangerous repeated criminals, people sentenced to life in prison, and inmates on death row (Russia imposed a death penalty moratorium in 1996).  Transporting prisoners to these sites is usually done by train and, with Russia's immense size, the journey can take weeks.
On Wednesday, FBK head Zhdanov said Navalny is either being transported somewhere in strict secrecy, or he has already been relocated and is now being kept it full isolation.
"A very small number of people know about Navalny being held [there] otherwise something would definitely have leaked from the system," he said in an online video.
Zhdanov and his associates have been systematically contacting multiple prison facilities across the country, asking them if Navalny is on site. These efforts have so far been unsuccessful
Last week, Russian news outlet Baza reported Navalny was in Moscow for "investigative activities" but his team was not able to verify these reports. Zhdanov also offered a reward for information on the politician's whereabouts.
Is there a link with Russia 2024 presidential election?
Navalny's disappearance came just a day before his aides launched a wide-reaching political campaign "Russia without Putin." The initiative is aimed against Putin's plans to secure a fifth presidential term in the upcoming presidential election in March 2024.
When asked for comment last week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the government had "neither the intention, nor the capacity to track the fates of prisoners."
In his DW interview last week, Zhdanov drew a link between the campaign and Navalny's fate. Navalny's disappearance was an attempt to isolate the Putin rival, according to Zhdanov.
"I don't believe in such coincidences — that Alexei goes missing just as we are about to announce our electoral campaign, a day before Vladimir Putin announcing he would run for president for an infinite new term. It's not a coincidence, it's the Kremlin strategy," he said.

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