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Doctors Fear For Alexei Navalny As His Health Declines Due To Hunger Strike

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Doctors for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny warn that his health is deteriorating rapidly. He's been on hunger strike for 20 days. He's protesting a lack of medical care while he's been in prison. Navalny's team has called for nationwide protests on Wednesday. This is the same day President Vladimir Putin is set to address the nation. NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow is following all this and joins us now. Good morning, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What can you tell us at this point about Navalny's condition?

KIM: Well, the Russian prison service said this morning it's decided to move Navalny to a prison hospital, so that does indicate he may be in poor health. But on the other hand, the prison service also says his condition is satisfactory and that a doctor sees him on a daily basis. So we still know very little about Navalny's exact condition, and that's why his doctors sounded the alarm bells. Over the weekend, they published the results of one of his blood tests on social media, and they said it showed he should be in intensive care and that he could die at any moment from cardiac arrest.

Now, the whole reason Navalny is on hunger strike is because he says he's being denied medical attention for back pain and numbness in his legs and hands. And he says that might be linked to a poisoning last summer that he blames on President Putin. A team of doctors tried to visit him over the weekend, but they were not let into the prison.

MARTIN: So, I mean, it's interesting. Navalny's lawyers have been trying to stir up international response on behalf of their client. I guess, to some degree, it's working. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan went on CNN yesterday warning that there would be consequences for the Kremlin if Navalny dies while in prison. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

JAKE SULLIVAN: We have communicated to the Russian government that what happens to Mr. Navalny in their custody is their responsibility, and they will be held accountable by the international community.

MARTIN: What would that mean, Lucian?

KIM: Well, I mean, the U.S. has already imposed sanctions over the poisoning of Navalny, and it could mean there would be new sanctions. You know, before his poisoning last summer, Navalny was very much a domestic political phenomenon in Russia. But after his dramatic medical evacuation to Germany and then the determination by European experts that a banned chemical weapon had been used against him, it really turned him into an international-cause celeb. And he now is seen as the man who symbolizes the opposition to Putin, and his death could lead to an even worse relationship between the West and Russia and isolate the Kremlin even more.

MARTIN: What is the Kremlin saying about Navalny or the comments made by Jake Sullivan and in the Biden administration?

KIM: Well, the Kremlin is really speaking on two levels. You know, on the level of words, the Kremlin acts like Navalny barely exists. President Putin and his spokesman don't say his name in public. And the message they're really desperately trying to get across is that Navalny is insignificant, a nobody; he's a small-time huckster who's trying to insinuate his way into national politics and shouldn't be given the time of day. That's one level.

But on the level of actions, the Kremlin has launched a sweeping crackdown on Navalny's anti-corruption foundation, on his allies and on his supporters and, basically, anybody who even publicizes the time and place of the next demonstration in support of Navalny. So that would seem to indicate that the Kremlin does see a potential threat in him.

MARTIN: NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow. Lucian, I'm sure we'll be watching what happens on Wednesday, when Navalny's team has called for nationwide protests. Their client has been on a hunger strike in a Russian prison for 20 days. Lucian, thank you.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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