United Nations human rights experts have called for an international investigation into the poisoning of prominent Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny and demanded his “immediate release” from a Russian penal colony.
Agnes Callamard, the UN’s top expert on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, and Irene Khan, the expert on freedom of opinion and expression, made the call in a joint statement on Monday.
They said Navalny’s poisoning last year was part of a trend of unlawful killings and attempted killings of critics at home and abroad, meant to send a “sinister warning” to quash dissent. They added that the evidence thus far pointed to the “very likely involvement” of Russian government officials.
Navalny, 44, fell ill in Siberia in August and was flown to Germany, which says it found evidence he had been poisoned with Novichok, a banned nerve agent. Russia denies any role in his illness and says it has not seen proof that he was poisoned.
After recuperating for five months in Germany, Navalny returned to Russia in January. He was immediately arrested on arrival at Moscow airport and later sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for parole violations by leaving the country to receive medical treatment.
Navalny has rejected the case against him as fabricated.
The experts recalled that toxicology tests conducted in Germany, France, Sweden and by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found that Navalny was poisoned with a “novel form of the Novichok nerve agent” of the type that was developed initially by the erstwhile Soviet Union and then by Russia.
They said the substance could “only be found within and amongst State actors”, which violates Russia’s commitment under the Chemical Weapon’s Convention.
“Given the inadequate response of the domestic authorities, the use of prohibited chemical weapons, and the apparent pattern of attempted targeted killings, we believe that an international investigation should be carried out as a matter of urgency in order to establish the facts and clarify all the circumstances concerning Mr Navalny’s poisoning,” they said.
Callamard and Khan also released the text of a December 30 letter to Russian authorities, notifying Moscow they were looking into the poisoning.
The letter said if allegations were confirmed, Russian officials may be subject to criminal liability “both for participating in or ordering attempted murder or for failing to ensure that subordinates do not engage in these actions”.
Navalny had been held in a maximum security prison in Moscow, but last week was transferred elsewhere, according to the RIA Novosti news agency. The report, citing the head of the Federal Penitentiary Service, did not specify where he was moved to.
His arrest drove a wave of protests, drawing tens of thousands to the streets across Russia.
Authorities have detained about 11,000 people, many of whom were fined or given jail terms ranging from seven to 15 days.
His detention has also raised political tensions between Moscow and Western nations, which are preparing additional sanctions against Russian officials.