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Russian opposition leader goes on hunger strike in prison, and Putin's government has "no comment"

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Moscow — Vladimir Putin's government had nothing to say on Thursday about his biggest critic, opposition leader Alexey Navalny, going on hunger strike in prison to protest what he's described as a lack of proper medical care. In a handwritten statement, a picture of which was posted online by his allies on Wednesday, Navalny said that his physical condition was worsening, but that he'd been unable to see a doctor of his choice and receive necessary medications.

"I demand a doctor to be allowed to see me, and until that happens I will be on a hunger strike," Navalny said in the note. He said that he had been requesting medical assistance every day for almost a month but received little help.

In a post to his Twitter account on Thursday, Navalny's team said a prison weigh-in showed the dissident had already shed almost 18 pounds in detention even before he decided to refuse food.  

This is the first time that Navalny, President Putin's most prominent detractor, has gone on hunger strike in years of activism. He's been jailed many times over the years, usually at local holding facilities, but several weeks ago was transferred to a large penal colony for the first time, to serve a two-and-a-half-year sentence for violating the terms of a previous suspended sentence.

A prison photo of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, which was included in a March 29, 2021 Instagram post attributed to him, is seen in a screengrab from Instagram. Instagram/Alexey Navalny

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said "there is no comment" when asked during his Thursday press briefing about Navalny's hunger strike, calling it a matter for the country's prison service to determine in consultation with human rights and monitoring organizations.

Navalny's lawyers and allies raised the alarm over his deteriorating condition last week, saying they feared for his life. He says he suffers with severe pain in his back, which has now spread to his right leg, and that he is losing sensation in his both legs. 

"I would have done with one leg somehow. But I don't want at all to lose two legs at once," he said in the message posted to his Instagram account by his team, who have been able to visit him regularly. "So I'm lying hungry, but so far with two legs."  

The 44-year-old opposition politician was sentenced to prison last month soon after his return to Moscow from Berlin, where he spent five months recovering from severe poisoning with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. He's now in a notorious penal colony about 60 miles from Moscow.

The prison service responded to Navalny's complaints with a statement saying the inmate had been provided with, "all the necessary medical aid in accordance with his current medical indications."

In a social media post made on his behalf on Monday, Navalny said he could be put into solitary confinement, in conditions "close to torture," after being reprimanded by prison officials for a series of minor infractions. His offenses included things such as getting out of bed a few minutes too early. 

Navalny has always dismissed all of the charges against him as politically motivated. His arrest prompted weeks of mass protests, with thousands rallying on the streets of Russian cities, including the capital.

Last week, his associates issued a public call for supporters to sign up online to join mass-protests, scheduled for next week, to demand Navalny's release. Their stated goal is to register 500,000 people nationwide before they set a firm date for the action.

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The United States, the European Union and various individual EU countries have called on Putin's government to release Navalny immediately, but the Kremlin has shrugged off those calls as interference in Russia's internal affairs.

During a Tuesday video call between Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, the European leaders expressed the need for Russia to protect the opposition politician's health. The Kremlin told reporters that Putin offered "objective explanation" to the EU leaders' questions about Navalny.

Putin has repeatedly denied assertions by U.S. and European officials that his secret services were behind Navalny's near-fatal poisoning last year, saying if they'd wanted him dead, he would be.

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