Pressure mounts on Russia to investigate opposition leader’s suspected poisoning

Pressure mounts on Russia to investigate opposition leader’s suspected poisoning
Russian President Vladimir Putin (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The Kremlin has said it does not want the illness of Russia’s opposition leader, who is in a coma in a German hospital after a suspected poisoning, to affect relations with the West.

The statement came two days after doctors at the Berlin hospital where Alexei Navalny is being treated said tests indicated he was poisoned, and minutes before British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joined other Western officials in demanding a transparent investigation into the 44-year-old’s condition.

“The poisoning of (Alexei) Navalny shocked the world,” Mr Johnson said in a tweet. He added: “The perpetrators must be held accountable, (and) the UK will join international efforts to ensure justice is done.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated that Moscow “categorically” disagreed with “hasty” conclusions that Mr Navalny was a victim of an intentional poisoning, and said it does not want the situation to affect its ties with the West.

Mr Peskov told reporters: “Of course, we wouldn’t want that… Secondly, there is no reason whatsoever for it. We are absolutely, no less than others, interested in understanding what led to a coma.”

Mr 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 Thursday and was taken to a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk after the plane made an emergency landing.

Over the weekend, he was transferred to the Charite hospital in Berlin, where doctors found indications of “cholinesterase inhibitors” in his system.

These act by blocking the breakdown of a key chemical in the body, acetycholine, that transmits signals between nerve cells. Mr Navalny is being treated with the antidote atropine.

His allies say the Kremlin is behind the illness of its most prominent critic. Russian officials have denounced the accusations as “empty noise”.

The pressure on Moscow mounted after Charite revealed its findings. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a thorough investigation into Mr Navalny’s condition. Officials in France and Norway echoed her sentiment, and the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said the US “stands ready to assist” with a probe, if reports of a poisoning “prove accurate”.

Mr Pompeo’s deputy Stephen Biegun met with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and other diplomats on Tuesday. According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Mr Biegun warned that if Mr Navalny’s poisoning is confirmed, the US could take steps that will exceed Washington’s response to findings of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

The ministry said Russian diplomats warned Mr Biegun against making unfounded accusations and noted that Russian authorities stand for a “thorough and maximally objective investigation of what happened”.

The Kremlin said there are no grounds for a criminal investigation so far since it has not been fully established what caused the politician to fall into a coma. Mr Peskov said Mr Navalny’s condition may have been triggered by other causes.

Mrs Merkel’s spokeswoman, Ulrike Demmer, said there is no reason to doubt the German doctors’ findings.

“From the side of the German government, there is the fullest trust in the work of the doctors,” Mr Demmer said, adding that Germany takes the clinical evidence of a poisoning “very seriously”.

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