Correction 22/08/2020: An earlier version of this story misidentified the radioactive substance used to poison former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko. It was polonium-210, not plutonium-210.
The founder of the activist group that arranged a medical evacuation for Alexei Navalny has called his condition “very worrying” as a hospital in Germany started the Russian opposition politician’s treatment with “extensive” diagnostic tests following his arrival in Berlin on Saturday.
An air ambulance carrying Navalny coming from the Siberian city of Omsk, chartered by the German NGO Cinema for Peace, touched down at 8:47am local time (06:47 GMT) at the military wing of Berlin’s Tegel airport.
“His health condition is very worrying,” Cinema for Peace founder Jaka Bizilj told reporters outside the hospital.
“We got a very clear message from the doctors that if there had not been an emergency landing in Omsk, he would have died.”
Navalny has been one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics [Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP]
One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics, Navalny was admitted to an intensive care unit in Omsk on Thursday.
His supporters believe the tea he drank was laced with poison – and the Kremlin is behind both his illness and the delay in transferring him to a top German hospital.
“After completing the examinations and after consulting the family, the physicians will comment on the disease and further treatment steps. The examinations will take some time,” Charite hospital, in the capital Berlin, said in a statement.
After German specialists arrived on a plane equipped with advanced medical equipment on Friday morning at his family’s behest, Navalny’s physicians in Omsk said he was too unstable to be moved to another hospital.
Navalny’s supporters denounced that as a ploy by authorities to stall until any poison in his system would no longer be traceable.
The Omsk medical team relented only after a charity that had organised the medevac plane revealed that the German doctors examined the politician and said he was fit to be transported.
The Kremlin denied resistance to the transfer was political, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying it was purely a medical decision. However, the reversal came as international pressure on Russia’s leadership mounted.
The most prominent member of Russia’s opposition, Navalny campaigned to challenge Putin in the 2018 presidential election but was barred from running. Since then, he has been promoting opposition candidates in regional elections, challenging members of the governing party, United Russia.
Ariel Cohen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Al Jazeera the suspected poisoning of Navalny was not the first time critics of the Kremlin have been targeted in such a way.
He noted the assassination of Russian politician Boris Nemstov in 2015, the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who died in 2006 after drinking a cup of tea laced with radioactive polonium-210, as well as the case of Sergei Skripal, a Russian spy who spent weeks in critical condition after being poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok in the British city of Salisbury.
“So clearly, being an outspoken opposition leader or being a corruption fighter or a whistle-blower in Russia is a dangerous business indeed,” Cohen said.
“Navalny was doing a lot of work exposing corruption, including at the highest level … and this is what they do to retaliate against their critics.”