Alexei Navalny transferred to prison hospital, is 'really unwell,' lawyer says

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is in the third week of a hunger strike while behind bars, was moved to a hospital in another prison after his doctor said he could be near death, his lawyer said Monday.

Navalny's physician has said the Putin critic, who's on hunger strike, could be near death

In this photo taken on Feb. 12 and provided by the Babuskinsky District Court, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a cage during a hearing on charges of defamation in Moscow, Russia. (Babuskinsky District Court Press Service/AP)

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is in the third week of a hunger strike while behind bars, was moved to a hospital in another prison after his doctor said he could be near death, his lawyer said Monday.

Navalny was transferred Sunday from a penal colony east of Moscow to a prison hospital in Vladimir, a city 180 kilometres east of the capital, lawyer Alexei Liptser said after visiting the politician on Monday afternoon.

"Yesterday he was really unwell ... Given the test results and the overall state of his health, it was decided to transfer him here. In the evening, he became significantly worse," Liptser said. While Navalny was able to meet with Liptser Monday, the lawyer said he was continuing his hunger strike and "in general his look indicates he is really unwell."

Russia's state penitentiary service FSIN did not report the decision to transfer Navalny until Monday morning and a statement it released said he had agreed to take vitamin therapy.

Liptser said he didn't have enough time with his client to confirm that. 

"They were searching him ahead of our meeting longer than our meeting had lasted. He was outraged by this. Therefore, we couldn't discuss anything, apart from what has happened to him."

Navalny 'could die at any moment,' doctor says

The prison service statement said Navalny's condition was deemed "satisfactory."  

But the opposition leader's physician, Dr. Yaroslav Ashikhmin, said Saturday that test results he received from the family show Navalny with sharply elevated levels of potassium, which can bring on cardiac arrest, and heightened creatinine levels that indicate impaired kidneys.

"Our patient could die at any moment," Ashikhmin said in a Facebook post.

The United States has warned Russia of unspecified "consequences" should Navalny die in Russian jail, and the White House said Monday that it is monitoring the situation closely.

"We continue to reiterate our view that what happens to Mr. Navalny in the custody of the Russian government is the responsibility of the Russian government," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

"He must be treated humanely," she said. 

The Kremlin said on Monday it would retaliate against any further sanctions and rejected foreign countries' statements on the case.

"The state of health of those convicted and jailed on Russian territory cannot and should not be a theme of their interest," spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

EU foreign ministers met virtually on Monday. Despite the worrisome developments in both the Navalny case and Russia's mobilization of what the bloc estimates might be as many as 150,000 troops near the Ukraine border, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after the meeting that, "for the time being, there is no move in the field of more sanctions" to be slapped on Russia.

Anti-Putin protest scheduled for Wednesday

Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's fiercest opponent, was arrested in January upon his return from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin — accusations Russian officials have rejected.

The arrest triggered a massive wave of protests all across Russia, the biggest show of defiance in recent years. Soon after, a court ordered Navalny to serve 2 ½ years in prison on a 2014 embezzlement conviction that the European Court of Human Rights deemed to be "arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable."

Navalny went on hunger strike in prison to protest the refusal to let his doctors visit when he began experiencing severe back pain and a loss of feeling in his legs. Russia's state penitentiary service has said that Navalny was receiving all the medical help he needs.

In response to the alarming news about Navalny's health this weekend, his team has called for a nationwide rally on Wednesday, the same day Putin is scheduled to deliver his annual state of the nation address.

European leaders, including European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, are assessing the bloc's strategy toward Russia amid the weakening health of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny. (Francois Walschaerts/The Associated Press)

Several Navalny allies dismissed the hospital transfer announced by the prison service as insufficient.

Navalny's top strategist, Leonid Volkov, said no one should assume it was happening until the opposition leader's lawyers confirm it. The lawyers were en route to the prison where the hospital was located, Volkov said.

"Until the lawyers locate him, we won't know where he is and what is up with him," Volkov wrote in a Facebook post.

Ivan Zhdanov, the head of Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption, tweeted Monday that the move announced by the prison service would take the politician merely to another "tormenting colony, just with a big in-patient facility, where the gravely ill are being transferred."

Hospital deemed 'prison' where tuberculosis treated

Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva, head of the Navalny-backed Alliance of Doctors union and also the politician's personal physician, noted that it was "not a hospital where a diagnosis can be determined and treatment [can be] prescribed for his ailments," but rather "a prison where tuberculosis is being treated."

She again called for the prison to let her and other physicians see Navalny.

Last month, the politician was transferred to a penal colony east of Moscow, notorious for its harsh conditions.

Navalny has complained about being sleep-deprived due to guards conducting hourly checks on him at night, and said he has developed severe back pain and numbness in his legs within weeks of being transferred to the colony.

His demands for a visit from an independent "civilian" physician were rebuffed by prison officials, and he went on hunger strike on March 31.

In a message from prison on Friday, Navalny said prison officials threatened to force-feed him "imminently," using a "straitjacket and other pleasures."

With files from Reuters