Russian Opposition Leader Missing From Prison

( – A prominent opponent of Russian leader Vladimir Putin seems to have disappeared from prison. Alexei Navalny was jailed in 2021 and had been held in a maximum security penal colony. Now his name has disappeared from its list of inmates, nobody can get in touch with him, and prison authorities won’t say where he’s gone.

Standing Up to Putin

Alexei Navalny started out as a corporate lawyer but got involved in politics around the turn of the century. He was elected to a Moscow city council in 2002 on a Russian United Democratic platform and quickly rose through the party, becoming deputy chief of the Moscow branch. Then, in 2007, he was expelled after a dispute with the party chairman and founded his own party, the National Russian Liberation Movement (NAROD), which focused on stopping illegal immigration — but also took aim at the corrupt politicians and oligarchs who have siphoned off so much of Russia’s wealth since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Anti-corruption parties aren’t too popular with the Putin regime, and in 2011 Navalny was one of 300 NAROD members arrested at a Moscow protest against alleged vote rigging in that year’s parliamentary elections. As soon as he was released he started warning that Putin was likely to rig the 2012 presidential election, making him the highest-profile opposition to the authoritarian president.

After several years of standing up to Putin, he ran in the 2018 presidential election. During the campaign, he was regularly harassed by Putin supporters and possibly state agencies, including a chemical attack that left him mostly blind in one eye. Throughout this whole period, he was regularly accused of financial crimes, all of which he denies.

In 2020 he survived a suspected Novichok nerve agent poisoning, a known technique of Russian intelligence agents. Finally, in 2021, he was arrested as he returned to Russia after a trip to Germany and jailed for an alleged crime he’d previously been given a suspended sentence for.

The Missing Prisoner

Since he was jailed, Navalny has kept in touch with the outside world through spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh, but in early December communications were suddenly cut off. On December 11, Yarmysh told journalists she hadn’t been able to contact him in almost a week. Now, officials at Penal Colony 6 have told Navalny’s lawyers his name is no longer on the inmate roster. According to Yarmysh, the prison is refusing to say where he’s gone. One of his lawyers has already checked another nearby penal colony, but staff there say Navalny isn’t an inmate.

The Russian prison system is notoriously inefficient and it can take weeks for records to be updated when a prisoner is transferred and it’s entirely possible Navalny is somewhere in the system but his name isn’t on a roster at his new location yet. On the other hand, the system is also notoriously brutal, and the penal colonies have a significant death rate. Until Navalny resurfaces, his family, colleagues, and supporters have good reasons to worry.

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