MOSCOW (AP) — The loss of contact with Alexei Navalny at the prison colony where the opposition leader was being held likely signals a Kremlin effort to tighten his isolation while President Vladimir Putin runs for reelection over the next three months, Navalny's spokeswoman said Tuesday.
Worries about Navalny spread Monday after officials at the facility east of Moscow said he was no longer on the inmate roster. Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said his associates and lawyers have been unable to contact him for a week. Prison officials said he has been moved from the colony where he has been serving a 19-year term on charges of extremism, but they didn’t say where he went.
Prison transfers in Russia are notoriously secretive, with authorities providing no information about the whereabouts of inmates for weeks until they reach another facility and are given permission to contact relatives or lawyers.
“We now have to look for him in every colony of special regime in Russia,” Yarmysh told The Associated Press. “And there are about 30 of them all over Russia. So we have no idea in which one we will find him.”
She noted that “they can transfer a prisoner for weeks or even for months, and no one will know where he is.”
Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service did not immediately respond to an AP request for comment about Navalny's possible transfer and whereabouts. Earlier this year, another prominent opposition figure, Andrei Pivovarov, also went missing during a prison transfer. His transfer, from a detention center in Russia's southern region of Krasnodar to a penal colony in the northwestern region of Karelia, took about a month.
Once at a new facility, prison officials there are legally obliged to notify relatives or lawyers within 10 days, but Yarmysh said they can hardly be expected to follow the rules in Navalny's case.
She said the authorities will likely try to keep Navalny's location secret for as long as they can after Putin on Friday declared his intention to seek another six-year term in the March 17 election, moving to extend his rule of over two decades.
“They will try to hide him as long as possible,” Yarmysh said. “I guess this was made deliberately to isolate Alexei during this period of time so he wouldn’t be able to influence all these things in any way, because everyone understands — and Putin, of course, understands — that Alexei is his main rival, even despite the fact that he is not on the ballot.”
Asked Tuesday where Navalny is, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov snapped that “we have neither a desire nor an opportunity to track down inmates.”
Commenting on U.S. expressions of concern about Navalny, Peskov said in a conference call with reporters that he has been convicted and is serving his sentence, adding that “we consider any interference, including by the United States, inadmissible.”
Navalny, 47, has been behind bars since January 2021, when he was arrested upon his return from Germany where he had recuperated from nerve agent poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin. Navalny, who campaigned against official corruption and organized major anti-government protests, has rejected all charges against him as a politically motivated vendetta.
Navalny has been serving his sentence at the Penal Colony No. 6, in the town of Melekhovo in the Vladimir region, about 230 kilometers (140 miles) east of Moscow. He was due to be transferred to a penal colony with an even higher level of security.
The loss of contact with Navalny was particularly worrying, given that he recently fell ill, Yarmysh said. She said prison officials had given him an IV drip when he felt dizzy and he had to lie on the floor of his cell.
“It looks like it might have been a faint from hunger because he isn’t being fed properly and he doesn’t have any ventilation in his cell and he doesn’t have any like proper exercise time,” Yarmysh said.
While Putin’s reelection is all but certain, given his overwhelming control over the country’s political scene and a widening crackdown on dissent, Navalny’s supporters and other critics hope to use the campaign to erode public support for the Kremlin leader and his military action in Ukraine.
Authorities could try to send Navalny to a remote colony to further limit his influence, Yarmysh said. Since the start of his imprisonment, he has continued his scathing attacks on the Kremlin in comments his associates posted to social media.
“I guess they decided that it would be smarter for them to send him as far away because he’s still too loud and too present in the public field,” Yarmysh said.