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UN expert expresses concern as Russian opposition leader Navalny disappears in prison system

Putin’s fiercest foe had multiple hearings scheduled, some of which were suspended since the unknown location of the politician precluded his participation

Alexei Navalny
Alexei Navalny is seen on a screen via video link from the IK-2 corrective penal colony in Pokrov before a court hearing, in Moscow, Russia May 17, 2022.EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA (REUTERS)

The United Nations’ special rapporteur for human rights in Russia said Monday that she is concerned about imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny after his legal team and allies reported they have been unable to locate him since making contact 13 days ago.

Navalny’s allies said he failed to appear in court as expected Monday and they were still searching for him in Russia’s extensive prison system.

Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Navalny had multiple hearings scheduled, some of which were suspended since the unknown location of the politician who is President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest foe precluded his participation in person or by video link.

Special Rapporteur Mariana Katzarova, an independent expert who reports on human rights in Russia for the U.N., said she was “greatly concerned that the Russian authorities will not disclose Mr. Navalny’s whereabouts and well-being for such a prolonged period of time.” The situation amounts to an “enforced disappearance,” Katzarova said.

The whereabouts of Navalny, 47, have been unknown since his lawyers lost touch with him after Dec. 6. They believe he is deliberately being hidden after Putin announced his candidacy in Russia’s March presidential election, which the longtime leader is almost certain to win.

“Alexei is Putin’s main opponent even though his name won’t be on the ballot,” Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokesperson told The Associated Press. “They will do everything they can to isolate him.”

Navalny’s team has launched a campaign to encourage Russians to boycott the election or vote for another candidate.

Allies said a defense lawyer was told in court on Dec. 15 that Navalny had been moved from the penal colony east of Moscow where he was serving a 19-year term on charges of extremism, but the lawyer was not told where Navalny was taken.

Yarmysh told the AP that Navalny’s team had written to more than 200 pretrial detention centers and special prison colonies as well as checked all detention centers in Moscow in person in order to find the opposition leader.

Although a judge suspended Monday’s court proceedings for an indefinite period after Navalny could not be located, that does not mean judicial officials will find him, Yarmysh said. “The court simply relieved itself of responsibility for administering justice,” she said.

Navalny’s allies sounded the alarm after his lawyers were not let into Penal Colony No. 6, the prison about 230 kilometers (140 miles) east of Moscow where he was serving his sentence, after Dec. 6. The lawyers also said that letters to him were not being delivered there and that Navalny was not appearing at scheduled court hearings via video link.

Yarmysh said earlier this month that those developments caused concern because Navalny had recently fallen ill and apparently fainted “out of hunger.” She said he was being “deprived of food, kept in a cell without ventilation and has been offered minimal outdoor time.”

He was due to be transferred to a “special security” penal colony, a facility with the highest security level in the Russian penitentiary system.

Russian prison transfers are notorious for taking a long time, sometimes weeks, during which there’s no access to prisoners, with information about their whereabouts limited or unavailable. Navalny could be transferred to any of a number of such penal colonies across Russia.

Navalny has been behind bars in Russia since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow after recuperating in Germany from nerve agent poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin. Before his arrest, he campaigned against official corruption and organized major anti-Kremlin protests.

He has since received three prison terms and spent months in isolation in Penal Colony No. 6 for alleged minor infractions. He has rejected all charges against him as politically motivated.

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