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Kremlin Critic Navalny Says He Will End Prison Hunger Strike

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, shown here in a February court session, reportedly has lost more than 30 pounds since his arrest.
Alexander Zemlianichenko
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, shown here in a February court session, reportedly has lost more than 30 pounds since his arrest.

Updated April 23, 2021 at 9:34 AM ET

Russian jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny said Friday he is calling off a more than three-week prison hunger strike that doctors say left him near death.

Navalny, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin who began refusing food on March 31 to demand medical care for leg and back pain, said in an Instagram post that on advice from doctors, he would take 24 days — about the same amount of time as the actual strike — to reverse it gradually.

He thanked the "good people" in Russia and internationally.

"My heart is full of love and gratitude for you," he said, thanking "good, not indifferent people around the world."

Navalny, 44, has been jailed since January when he was taken into custody after returning from Germany, where he received treatment for a nerve-agent poisoning that he says was ordered by Putin.

A judge later sent Navalny to prison, saying he broke the terms of an old conviction that many saw as politically motivated. Since his arrest, he has reportedly lost more than 15 kilograms (33 pounds) in prison.

"I am not withdrawing my request to allow the necessary specialist to see me," the opposition leader said. "I'm losing sensation in parts of my arms and legs, and I want to understand what it is and how to treat it."

"But considering the progress made and all the circumstances, I'm beginning to come out of my hunger strike," he added.

He said that public pressure had helped get him examined by civilian doctors twice in recent days, the second time right before nationwide protests of support on Wednesday.

On Sunday, Navalny's doctor said he could die "at any minute" if the hunger strike continued.

Physician Yaroslav Ashikhmin said test results that Navalny's family shared with him revealed the risk of cardiac arrest and damage to the kidneys.

On Monday, Navalny was transferred to an infirmary in a different prison from where he is normally housed to undergo what prison authorities described as "vitamin therapy."

Navalny's condition has been met with concern by world leaders, including President Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.

In the August poisoning of Navlany, toxicology tests in Germany identified the substance used as the Soviet-era Novichok, a nerve agent that most experts agree could only be obtained through a state actor. It is the same poison used in an attack on former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal, who was surreptitiously poisoned along with his daughter, Yulia, in the U.K. in 2018.

The Kremlin has denied any role in either the poisoning of Navalny or the Skripals.

Last month, in response to Navalny's poisoning, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on Russian intelligence services, the FSB and GRU, and several key Kremlin officials that the White House says are implicated in the nerve-agent attack.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the administration's actions were aimed at sending "a clear signal that Russia's use of chemical weapons and abuse of human rights have severe consequences. Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and contravenes international norms."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.