Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has threatened to sue the prison in which he is jailed, accusing it of withholding the Quran – a holy book he intended to study while serving his sentence.
In an Instagram post announcing his first lawsuit against prison officials, he said: “The thing is, they’re not giving my Quran.”
He added that “deeply studying” the Quran, which is the central religious text of Islam, was one of several “self-improvement” goals he had set for himself while in prison.
The claim comes as Navalny, a Christian, remains on a hunger strike in protest against an alleged refusal by authorities to allow his physician to examine him behind bars, after he developed severe back and leg pain.
The 44-year-old’s Instagram post came as the month of Ramadan began, a period in which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and spend time reading the Quran.
Navalny’s claim may come as a surprise to some.
He came under fire early in his political career for making nationalistic comments and deriding immigrants in Russia from predominantly Muslim countries in Central Asia.
The Kremlin critic said he has not been given access to any of the books he brought or ordered over the past month because they all need to be “inspected for extremism”, which officials say takes three months.
“Books are our everything, and if I have to sue for my right to read, then I’ll be suing,” he said.
Hunger strike continues
Navalny is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest domestic opponent.
He was arrested in January upon returning to Moscow from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from an alleged nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.
A court ordered Navalny in February to serve two and a half years in prison for violating the terms of his probation, including when he was convalescing in Germany, from a 2014 embezzlement conviction.
Navalny has rejected the conviction as fabricated, and the European Сourt of Human Rights found it “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”.
Authorities transferred Navalny last month from a Moscow jail to the IK-2 penal colony in the Vladimir region, 85 kilometres (53 miles) east of the Russian capital.
The facility in the town of Pokrov is known for draconian routines, which include standing at attention for hours.
Within weeks of being imprisoned, Navalny said he developed severe back and leg pains and was effectively deprived of sleep because a guard checks on him hourly at night.
He went on a hunger strike two weeks ago, demanding access to proper medication and a visit from his doctor.
Russia’s state penitentiary service claims he is receiving all the medical help he needs.
Last week, Navalny was moved to the prison’s medical ward with a cough and fever.
In an Instagram post, he said three of the 15 people he was housed with had tuberculosis, a contagious disease that spreads through the air.
On Monday, Navalny’s allies said on Twitter that he was transferred back.
The politician has lost eight kilogrammes (more than 17lbs) since starting the hunger strike and 15 kilogrammes (33lbs) in all since arriving at the penal colony, according to his team.
Prison officials are “seeing the seriousness of the hunger strike” and are threatening to force-feed him, Navalny’s team said in a tweet.