Alexei Navalny poisoned with Novichok, says German government

Philip Oltermann in Berlin and agencies

2 September 2020, 5:35 pm EEST

The German government has said toxicological exams at Berlin’s Charité hospital have yielded “unequivocal proof” that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent

Navalny, a strong critic of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, fell ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on 20 August and was transferred to Berlin two days later.

Steffen Seibert, spokesman for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said in a statement that testing by a special military laboratory had shown proof of a chemical nerve agent from the Novichok group.

Born in 1976 just outside Moscow, Alexei Navalny is a lawyer-turned-campaigner whose Anti-Corruption Foundation investigates the wealth of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. 

He started out as a Russian nationalist, but emerged as the main leader of Russia’s democratic opposition during the wave of protests that led up to the 2012 presidential election, and has since been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. 

Navalny is barred from appearing on state television, but has used social media to his advantage. A 2017 documentary accusing the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, of corruption received more than 30m views on YouTube within two months. 

He has been repeatedly arrested and jailed. The European court of human rights ruled that Russia violated Navalny’s rights by holding him under house arrest in 2014. Election officials barred him from running for president in 2018 due to an embezzlement conviction that he claims was politically motivated. Navalny told the commission its decision would be a vote ‘not against me, but against 16,000 people who have nominated me; against 200,000 volunteers who have been canvassing for me‘. 

There has also been a physical price to pay. In April 2017, he was attacked with green dye that nearly blinded him in one eye, and in July 2019 he was taken from jail to hospital with symptoms that one of his doctors said could indicate poisoning. In 2020, he was again hospitalised after a suspected poisoning, and taken to Germany for treatment. The German government later said toxicology results showed Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.

Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent, was used to poison the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain. It is a cholinesterase inhibitor, part of the class of substances that doctors at the Charité initially identified in Navalny.

According to German news magazine Der Spiegel, experts at the Charité sought advice from Porton Down, Britain’s secretive laboratory for research on chemical and biological weapons, because of possible similarities with the 2018 Skripal attack.

The German government’s official statement described the attack on Navalny with a chemical nerve agent an “astounding act” and appealed to the Russian government to urgently offer an explanation.

Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate compounds, but the chemicals used to make them, and their final structures, are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries.

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