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Alexei Navalny 'victim of a crime' in Russia, Germany's Merkel says of poisoning

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the same type of Soviet-era nerve agent that British authorities identified in a 2018 attack on a former Russian spy, the German government said Wednesday, citing new test results.

Nerve agent Novichok, detected in 2018 poisoning of Russians in Britain, seen in Navalny tests

Doctors in Germany say they have proof that Alexei Navalny, a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was poisoned by Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent. 1:55

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with the same type of Soviet-era nerve agent that British authorities identified in a 2018 attack on a former Russian spy, the German government said Wednesday, citing new test results.

The Berlin hospital treating Navalny said he remains in serious condition, though his condition is improving. The facility said that it expects a long recovery, and it still can't rule out long-term consequences from the poisoning.

The government said that testing by a special German military laboratory at the hospital's request showed "proof without doubt of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group."

"With this, it is certain that Alexei Navalny is the victim of a crime," Chancellor Angela Merkel said. "He was meant to be silenced and I condemn this in the strongest possible manner."

"There are very serious questions now that only the Russian government can answer, and must answer," Merkel said, describing what happened to Navalny as "the attempted murder by poisoning of one of Russia's leading opposition figures."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a statement on Wednesday condemning the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. (Markus Schreiver/AFP/Getty Images)

Navalny, a politician and corruption investigator who is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critics, fell ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on Aug. 20 and was taken to a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk after the plane made an emergency landing.

He was later transferred to Berlin's Charité hospital, where doctors last week said there were indications that he had been poisoned.

British authorities identified Novichok as the substance used on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in 2018. It is a cholinesterase inhibitor, part of the class of substances that doctors at Charité initially identified in Navalny.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the Russian ambassador was summoned to his ministry Wednesday and told in "unmistakable" terms of Germany's call for the Navalny case to be investigated "in full and with full transparency."

"We now know that there was an attack with a chemical nerve agent," Maas said. "That makes it even more urgent to determine who was responsible in Russia and to hold them to account."

Navalny, seen in 2018, was transported to a German hospital on Aug. 22 after becoming sick on a flight in Russia. (Jean-Francois Badias/The Associated Press)

Countries condemn use of chemical weapon

The Kremlin remained tight-lipped and said it hadn't been informed of the findings, even though its ambassador in Berlin had been summoned.

"Such information hasn't been relayed to us," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the state Tass news agency.

The German government has said it will inform its partners in the European Union and NATO about the test results.

"Russia itself should have a serious interest in good relations with its neighbours in Europe," said Maas. "Now at the very latest, it is the time to make a decisive contribution toward this."

Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Canada "strongly condemns the attack," as international reaction poured in Wednesday.

"Russian authorities must explain what happened and those responsible must be held accountable," he said. "The use of chemical weapons is despicable and abhorrent."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also called on Russia to explain what happened, calling the use of a chemical weapon "outrageous." In Washington, National Security Council spokesperson John Ullyot tweeted that it was "completely reprehensible."

Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne called the use of chemical weapons "abhorrent" and "unacceptable," and said Canada is deeply troubled by reports that a nerve agent was used against Navalny.

"Russian authorities must explain what happened so that those responsible may be held to account without delay," Champagne said in a statement Wednesday.

Reaction from NATO's secretary general:

Navalny remains in induced coma

In an update shortly after the government's announcement, the Charité hospital said Navalny is still in intensive care in an induced coma and remains on a ventilator. But it said that he is in stable condition and "continues to improve." 

Recovery is likely to be lengthy," read the hospital's statement. "It is still too early to gauge the long-term effects, which may arise in relation to this severe poisoning."

Navalny's allies in Russia have insisted he was deliberately poisoned by the country's authorities, accusations that the Kremlin rejected as "empty noise."

"To poison Navalny with Novichok in 2020 would be exactly the same as leaving an autograph at a crime scene, like this one," Navalny's longtime ally and strategist Leonid Volkov said in a tweet that featured a photo of Putin's name and a signature next to it.

The Russian doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia have repeatedly contested the German hospital's conclusion, saying they had ruled out poisoning as a diagnosis and that their tests for poisonous substances came back negative.

LISTEN l Aug. 27 Front Burner on Navalny's rise, poisoning:

Alexei Navalny is the most prominent opposition figure in Russia, an anti-corruption crusader and a frequent Kremlin critic. But right now, Navalny is comatose in a German hospital after a suspected poisoning. Today on Front Burner, Chris Brown from CBC's Moscow bureau explains why Navalny might have been targeted, by whom, and the potential fallout. 21:08

Novichok is a class of military-grade nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. Western weapons experts say it was only ever manufactured in Russia.

After the Skripals were poisoned, Russia said the U.S., Britain and other Western countries acquired the expertise to make the nerve agent after the Soviet Union collapsed, and that the Novichok used in the attack could have come from them.

According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, there is no record of Novichok having been declared by any nation that signed the chemical weapons convention.

"Unless you are working for the military, it is impossible to be accidentally exposed," said Richard Parsons, a senior lecturer in biochemical toxicology at King's College London. "It is only dangerous when it is about to be used, i.e. mixed together. It is unavailable from anywhere except the Russian military as far as I am aware."

Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya, left, is seen outside Berlin's Charite hospital on Aug. 25. Navalny remains in an induced coma. (Christoph Soeder/dpa/The Associated Press)

Britain has charged two Russians — alleged to be agents of the Russian military intelligence service GRU — in absentia in the 2018 attack, which left the Skripals in critical condition and killed a local woman. Russia has refused to extradite the men to the U.K.

British police believe the nerve agent was smuggled to Britain in a counterfeit Nina Ricci perfume bottle and sprayed on the front door of Sergei Skripal's house in the city of Salisbury in southwest England.

More than three months later, the bottle was found by a local man, 48-year-old Charlie Rowley. He was hospitalized and his girlfriend, Dawn Sturgess, 44, died after being exposed to the contents.

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