Russia's best-known anti-Kremlin opposition leader Alexey Navalny is in a coma in intensive care after being allegedly poisoned with something slipped into his tea, according to his spokeswoman.
His press secretary Kira Yarmysh wrote that Navalny fell sick while on a plane returning from Siberia to Minsk on Thursday morning and that the plane made an emergency landing in Omsk where he was rushed to hospital. Navalny is unconscious in a coma and connected to a ventilator, Yarmysh wrote in a series of tweets, saying his condition is "serious."
"We assume that Alexey was poisoned with something mixed in tea. It was the only thing that he drank since the morning. The doctors say that the toxin was quicker absorbed by hot liquid," Yarmysh wrote on Twitter. She said they had called the police.
The hospital in Omsk confirmed to the state news agency TASS that Navalny is in its toxicology intensive care unit and a senior doctor there, Anatoly Kalinchenko said his condition was serious but stable.
Navalny, 44, is Russia's most prominent opposition leader who has sought to challenge President Vladimir Putin through anti-corruption investigations and building a grassroots protest movement. His investigations, normally published as videos, have exposed alleged corruption among top Russian officials and powerful business figures, including some of members of Putin's inner circle, attracting millions of views. In recent years, his organization has helped lead some of the largest protests against Putin in Moscow.
A number of Kremlin opponents have fallen victim to violence over the years, also to suspected poisonings. In 2015, Boris Nemtsov, a former prime minister and one of the country's best-known opposition figures was shot dead on a bridge in front of the Kremlin. There have been a series of high-profile poisoning incidents involving Kremlin critics recently, including Sergey Skripal, the former Russian double-agent who was poisoned with a nerve agent in the British town of Salisbury in 2018. Another prominent activist, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a member of the pro-democracy group Open Russia, nearly died twice after suffering suspected poisoning in 2015 and again in 2017.
In 2018, Petr Verzilov, a member of the protest group Pussy Riot, in 2018 was flown to a hospital in Germany after suffering what doctors there said was a near-fatal poisoning with an unknown substance.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov on Thursday told reporters the Kremlin was aware of Navalny's hospitalization and wished him "the speediest recovery."
"Obviously, as with any citizen of our country, we wish him the speediest recovery," Peskov said in a daily briefing call. He said that it was still till too soon to say whether Navalny had been poisoned but that if he had an investigation should be opened.
"We are talking about a citizen of the Russian Federation. First we need to wait for the final analyses, which will help the doctors to determine what became the cause of this situation, the loss of consciousness. After that, if poisoning took place and there will be the relevant applications and if various decisions will be taken by law enforcement bodies then there will be an investigation," Peskov said.
Peskov said the Kremlin saw no reason why Navalny should not be taken abroad for treatment and said it was ready to assist if such a request was made.
Pavel Lebedyev, a man who said he was on the same flight as Navalny posted photos and videos of Navalny sitting and drinking tea in the airport and then another video onboard the plane where a person can be heard moaning in agony.
"He went to the toilet, and for a long time didn't return,' Lebedyev said in a video posted to his Instagram stories. Then, he said, he realized the crew were announcing an emergency landing. "I thought someone's got ill. I turned my head and I understood that Alexey is just lying there."
The hospital has not provided any confirmed diagnosis for Navalny yet and doctors have declined to confirm whether he had been poisoned, although Omsk's health ministry has said there is nothing to suggest he had suffered a stroke, heart attack or infection, including coronavirus. At a news conference, the deputy chief doctor at the hospital Kalinchenko told Russian media that he could not confirm at the moment that Navalny had been poisoned, saying there was "no certainty" of that yet and that it could also be the result of "natural poisoning."
Navalny's team have accused the hospital and police of trying to obstruct efforts to detect what poisoned Navalny and to prevent them from flying him to Europe for treatment. His spokeswoman Yarmysh has said the hospital was filled with police and that they had sought to confiscate Navalny's things, an effort they fear is intended to prevent them being analysed for the poison.
Navalny's colleagues have said they want to fly him to France or Germany for treatment believing there is a better chance of saving him there but also of detecting the poison.
France and Germany's leaders Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel at a press conference said they are ready to offer Navalny to be treated in their countries and Macron said France was prepared to give Navalny asylum if needed.
Navalny's organisation the Anti-Corruption Fund said that the hospital had told them Navalny's condition does not allow him to be moved and that he is receiving the necessary treatment, something his supporters disagree with.
Late on Thursday night, the Berlin-based NGO, Cinema for Peace, said it was preparing to send a plane to Omsk to bring Navalny to Germany for treatment at Berlin's The Charité hospital. The group said it planned for the medical plane to fly tonight at midnight and it hope it would receive all the necessary permits from Russian authorities that night. Cinema for Peace said it was organising the flight at the request of Petr Verzilov, the Pussy Riot activist who the group had helped bring to Germany for treatment after his own poisoning in 2018. Verzilov wrote on Twitter that Navalny's symptoms closely resembled what had happened to him then.
The Kremlin's spokesman Peskov said earlier in the day that it saw no obstacle to Navalny being taken abroad for treatment if such a request was made.
Pro-Kremlin media have run stories suggesting Navalny could have poisoned himself, alleging his poisoning was the result of "neuroleptic" poisoning, caused by an overdoes of anti-psychotic medication, and that he had been drunk the night before he fell sick.
Russia's state news agency TASS cited an unnamed law enforcement official saying that for now police are not treating Navalny's hospitalization as a deliberate poisoning and instead implied the opposition leader could have somehow have taken a poisonous substance himself.
"It's not excluded that he swallowed or took it himself," the source was quoted by TASS.
Photos posted by Navalny's companions showed the opposition leader smiling and looking well on the airport bus before take-off. Within a couple of hours, he was unconscious and in a serious condition.
Last year Navalny was hospitalized with what his team at the time said was poisoning, after he suffered severe inflammation of his face while serving a short jail sentence for protesting. At the time, authorities said he had suffered an "allergic reaction."
Navalny has been arrested and jailed dozens of times in the past decade and faced attacks and threats from pro-Kremlin activists. During one assault he almost lost his sight after green anti-septic was thrown in his face. He has become the best-known of Russia's anti-Kremlin opposition leaders and his group has built up a national following. Last summer, when several opposition activists allied with Navalny were barred from running in Moscow's local elections, it triggered weeks of protests, the largest and most persistent the Russian capital has seen in around a decade.
On Thursday, dozens of people queued to hold one-man pickets outside the FSB intelligence services' headquarters in Moscow condemning Navalny's poisoning. Police moved to disperse the protesters, arresting a number.