Imprisoned Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny declared he would start a hunger strike in protest at what he said was systematic torture and denial of medical care.
In a letter dated Wednesday addressed to the warden of the prison outside Moscow where he is being held, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic said guards were refusing to allow a doctor to treat him for severe back pain and neurological symptoms in his legs.
He also wrote that guards were “torturing” him through sleep deprivation and encouraged other prisoners to harass him.
“It all looks difficult from the outside. But on the inside it’s simple: you don’t have any other way to fight back, so you go on hunger strike. Ha-ha-ha,” Navalny wrote in the letter, which his team posted on Instagram. “So I’m lying down and am hungry, but I’ve got two legs.”
Navalny, 44, said he began feeling the severe back pain while detained in jail in Moscow in February, on fraud charges that he said were the Kremlin’s revenge for his anti-Putin activism.
The anti-corruption campaigner was arrested immediately upon returning from Germany, where he had been recovering from a military nerve agent poisoning he and western powers have blamed on the Kremlin.
He was then sentenced to two and half years in prison by a Moscow court for missing parole meetings from a 2014 suspended sentence — including several while he was in a coma after the poisoning.
Russia rejected a ruling from the ECHR that he should be released, saying it was “baseless and unlawful”.
The Kremlin has said it found no evidence that Navalny had been poisoned in Siberia last summer before he was evacuated to Germany.
Instead, it has floated alternative theories for the illness that plunged him into a coma, ranging from sudden-onset diabetes to a CIA plot — and even that Navalny had somehow procured the novichok nerve agent and poisoned himself.
Putin later admitted security services were tailing Navalny on the trip, but claimed that “if they’d wanted to, he’d have finished the job.”
In his letter, Navalny wrote that he was “plagued by murky doubts about the reason for my illness and the chances of getting better” after his earlier poisoning.
He said the pain worsened after he was sent to a notoriously harsh prison colony outside Moscow earlier this month. There, guards refused to let him be treated by an outside doctor, did not tell him his diagnosis after an MRI scan, and only gave him ibuprofen pills and cream to treat the pain. Navalny’s lawyers said he risked losing the use of his legs if his condition went untreated.
“I can’t get medication. They won’t let a doctor see me. And you know what, screw my right leg, Alexander Alexandrovich! I’d get by with just one,” he wrote in the letter to the prison warden, Alexander Mukhanov. “But I don’t want to lose two legs. That’d be unfair: everyone will have two, and I won’t have any.”
Putin discussed Navalny’s condition with French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel in a call late on Tuesday. Though the European leaders called on Russia to respect Navalny’s rights and preserve his health, Putin gave them “explanations of the objective circumstances of the case,” the Kremlin said in a readout of the call.
After Navalny publicly accused prison officials of “abuse” and “torture” last week, he was visited by two members of a government-run inmates’ rights monitoring group. The group said he complained of pain in his right leg, but could walk on his own and made no other requests.
Navalny’s team are planning what they hope will be Russia’s largest protests to force the Kremlin to release him. They said about 360,000 people across the country have signed up online to register interest as of Wednesday evening.