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Imprisoned Russian Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny Said To Be Having Health Problems

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's health is deteriorating in prison, and he's been on hunger strike for almost a week to demand medical attention. Navalny was imprisoned in January after returning from Germany, where he'd been recovering from a poisoning that he blames on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Today, some of Navalny's supporters, including several doctors, gathered outside the prison demanding to be given access to him. NPR's Lucian Kim joins us from Moscow.

Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So Alexei Navalny has only just begun his 2 1/2-year prison sentence, and already he says he's having health issues. Can you tell us what's wrong with him?

KIM: Well, yeah. I mean, he has a number of ailments. First of all, let's recall that back in August, he survived a poisoning with Novichok, a banned Soviet chemical weapon. That put him into a coma. The German government intervened to get him to a hospital in Germany. He recovered and spent months in physical therapy.

Then he was arrested when he came back to Russia. He says at that time, he started developing back pain from constant sitting. And according to his lawyers, he was denied medical attention, and he began to have pain and numbness in both of his legs. At the same time, he complained that prison wardens were waking him up every hour during the night, essentially subjecting him to sleep deprivation.

He announced this hunger strike last week to demand medical attention. And the latest we're hearing now is that he's developed a cough, has a temperature and that three of his fellow prisoners are being treated for tuberculosis.

SHAPIRO: Remind us why he's in prison in the first place and tell us about this place where he's being held.

KIM: So Navalny was jailed on an old conviction that a European court had ruled earlier was unfair. But that did not stop a Moscow court from sending him to prison for more than two years. Russian prisons in general don't have a great reputation. And especially the one where he's being held, it's in a small town about 60 miles east of Moscow.

The fact it's so close, though, means that doctors went out there earlier today. They demanded to be allowed to examine him and the prison authorities refused. Later, police made several arrests.

SHAPIRO: What are Russian authorities saying about this situation?

KIM: Prison authorities insist that he's getting all the medical attention he needs at the moment. One member of a local prison watchdog group even accused Navalny of faking his pain. President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, of course, is constantly being asked about Navalny, and he keeps on answering that Navalny is just like any other prisoner and shouldn't expect any special treatment and that if he's really sick, he'll get all the necessary care.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about the political opposition leader who has already been poisoned. I mean, is this just an effort by Putin to silence one of his biggest critics?

KIM: Oh, absolutely. You know, the Kremlin would actually have been perfectly happy if Navalny had stayed in Germany after his recovery. And they warned him that he would face jail time for this old conviction if he dared to return. But Navalny understood that being a political exile would make him irrelevant in Russian politics, and he took their dare knowing full well what to expect.

Putin, of course, is still firmly in control of Russia. There was a crackdown on protests in January that scared a lot of people and has been very effective - and so has a steady media campaign against Navalny. A poll that's just been released shows that almost half of Russians think Navalny's jailing was justified. But if you break that down, it's actually quite interesting. There's a generational divide. Among respondents aged 18 to 24, 50% thought his treatment was unfair, while in the age group over 55 years old, only 19% think it's unfair.

As long as he's in jail and in poor health, Navalny is also an international problem for the Kremlin. And the eyes of the world are on Putin and his prison system right now.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Lucian Kim from Moscow.

Thank you very much.

KIM: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELMB'S "MAKTENE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.