Alexei Navalny has two herniated discs in back, lawyers say

Russian opposition leader losing feeling in hands as concerns for his medical care in prison grow

Alexei Navalny
Alexei Navalny has repeatedly complained that he has not been allowed to see a specialist of his choosing. Photograph: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters
Alexei Navalny has repeatedly complained that he has not been allowed to see a specialist of his choosing. Photograph: Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters
in Moscow

Last modified on Wed 7 Apr 2021 13.37 EDT

Alexei Navalny has two herniated discs in his back and is losing feeling in his hands, his lawyers have said, as concerns mount about the opposition leader’s health in a Russian prison.

Olga Mikhailova, a lawyer for the Kremlin critic, confirmed that he had been placed in a prison sick ward and had undergone an MRI after complaining of numbness and pain in his legs and back. She said a doctor had told Navalny about the herniated discs, calling them “difficult to treat”.

Navalny remained feverish and still had a pronounced cough, she said, though his temperature had gone down from 102F (39C) to 99F. Tests had not yet shown that he had contracted coronavirus or tuberculosis, Mikhailova added.

Navalny has continued a hunger strike that he began last week due to what he has called substandard medical care in the IK-2 correctional facility, where he is serving a two-and-a-half year sentence for embezzlement. He has called the sentence revenge for his political opposition to the Kremlin.

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Who is Alexei Navalny?

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Born in 1976 just outside Moscow, Alexei Navalny is a lawyer-turned-campaigner whose Anti-Corruption Foundation investigates the wealth of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. 

He started out as a Russian nationalist, but emerged as the main leader of Russia's democratic opposition during the wave of protests that led up to the 2012 presidential election, and has since been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. 

Navalny is barred from appearing on state television, but has used social media to his advantage. A 2017 documentary accusing the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, of corruption received more than 30m views on YouTube within two months. 

He has been repeatedly arrested and jailed. The European court of human rights ruled that Russia violated Navalny's rights by holding him under house arrest in 2014. Election officials barred him from running for president in 2018 due to an embezzlement conviction that he claims was politically motivated. Navalny told the commission its decision would be a vote 'not against me, but against 16,000 people who have nominated me; against 200,000 volunteers who have been canvassing for me'. 

There has also been a physical price to pay. In April 2017, he was attacked with green dye that nearly blinded him in one eye, and in July 2019 he was taken from jail to hospital with symptoms that one of his doctors said could indicate poisoning. In 2020, he was again hospitalised after a suspected poisoning, and taken to Germany for treatment. The German government later said toxicology results showed Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.

Navalny was sent to prison again in February 2021, sentenced to two years and eight months, in a move that triggered marches in Moscow and the arrest of more than 1,000 protesters. By April he was described as being "seriously ill" in prison.

Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/AP
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Mikhailova said Navalny’s condition may have been exacerbated by the poor medical care provided to him in the IK-2 prison colony. Navalny has repeatedly complained that he has not been allowed to see a specialist of his choosing, a right he says he is entitled to by law.

Mikhailova said she believed that prison authorities were afraid that a visiting specialist would show that “their awful treatment led to the deterioration in his health”.

Navalny’s other lawyer, Vadim Kobzev, told TV Rain that the opposition leader was still on hunger strike and was losing approximately 1kg a day.

Navalny’s lawyers denied local media reports that he had been transferred out of the prison.

Navalny was poisoned with a novichok nerve agent last year in an attack that left him fighting for his life. After receiving treatment in Berlin, he returned to Russia in January, where he was arrested for violating his parole and sentenced to prison.