Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny ending hunger strike

A February 2021 photo shows Navalny inside a glass cell during a court hearing in Moscow. PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (AFP) - Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny said on Friday (April 23) he was ending a 24-day hunger strike he launched to demand medical treatment behind bars, after allies said his life was in danger.

The announcement came after Navalny's personal doctors said on Thursday that he had received treatment at a civilian hospital and urged him to put a stop to his protest.

"Taking into account the progress and all the circumstances, I am beginning to end my hunger strike," President Vladimir Putin's best-known critic said in an Instagram post.

He said that the process would take him 24 days, writing: "They say it's even harder" than the hunger strike.

Navalny's protest in prison had raised the stakes in a standoff between Putin and Western leaders, who said Moscow would face repercussions if Russia's most prominent opposition leader died in detention.

The 44-year-old trained lawyer announced the hunger strike in his penal colony on March 31, demanding to see an independent doctor for pain in his back and numbness in his arms and legs.

Navalny was thrown behind bars in February for more than two years on old embezzlement charges - which he says are politically motivated - just weeks after returning to Moscow from Germany where he had been recuperating from a near-fatal poisoning attack.

'Gratitude' for supporters

Navalny blames Russian authorities for the attack with nerve agent Novichok - a claim the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.

His allies had demanded he be allowed access to proper treatment and warned in mid-April he could suffer cardiac arrest "at any moment", calling on the authorities to move him to intensive care.

Medical professionals including Navalny's personal doctor Anastasia Vasilyeva made several attempts earlier this month to visit him, but were either detained or turned away.

Navalny said he was guided in his decision by the recommendation of his doctors, whom he "completely trusts", and the fact that some of his supporters also went on hunger strike in solidarity.

"Friends, my heart is full of love and gratitude for you, but I do not want for anybody to suffer because of me," he said.

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He added that he had been twice seen by civilian doctors and is getting medical tests, but he stressed he still wanted to see an independent doctor, pointing to the numbness in his limbs.

Navalny's doctors, who said they examined his medical results from hospital, recommended that he is transferred to a "modern" hospital in Moscow for further tests and to provide a full diagnosis.

"What we saw, cannot be simply called bad or unprofessional - it is monstrous," Dr Vasilyeva wrote on Twitter on Friday.

'Difficult' times ahead

Key ally Lyubov Sobol, who went on hunger strike in 2019 after she and several other opposition politicians were barred from running in local elections, said Friday that Navalny had "very difficult days" ahead as he starts eating again.

"If anybody thinks that Alexei will feel better right away, that is not the case," she wrote on Facebook.

Thousands of Russians took to the streets of more than 100 cities across the country on Wednesday to demand that Navalny be released from detention and given medical treatment.

The Kremlin downplayed the rallies - which saw nearly 2,000 people detained - but Navalny's allies credited public pressure and the protests as having played a key role in securing proper care for Navalny.

His deteriorating condition in the penal colony 100km east of Moscow drew sharp condemnation from Western countries whose leaders called for Navalny to be hospitalised and ultimately released from prison.

US President Joe Biden, who has sought to challenge Russia on a broad range of disagreements including the Ukraine conflict, warned Russia it would face repercussions if Navalny died in jail.

The European Union, United States and other Western countries hit Moscow with a series of penalties for his imprisonment and poisoning in Siberia last year.

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