US warns of consequences if jailed Kremlin critic Navalny dies

US national security adviser says Alexey Navalny’s safety is the Russian government’s responsibility.

In this file photo taken on Saturday, July 20, 2019, Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny gestures while speaking to a crowd during a political protest in Moscow, Russia. Russian doctors treatin
The European Union said it was 'deeply concerned' about reports concerning Navalny's health and called for his 'immediate and unconditional release' [File: Pavel Golovkin/AP]

President Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the United States government has told Russia “there will be consequences” if Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny dies in prison.

“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,” Sullivan told CNN on Sunday.

“In terms of the specific measures that we would undertake, we are looking at a variety of different costs that we would impose and I am not going to telegraph that publicly at this point, but we have communicated that there will be consequences if Mr Navalny dies,” he added.

A doctor for Navalny, who is in the third week of a hunger strike, has said his health is deteriorating rapidly and the 44-year-old could be on the verge of death.

The prominent opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin started refusing food on March 31 to protest against a lack of proper medical treatment for his leg and back.

“This latest threat from the US ratchets up other diplomatic problems that have fallen on the two countries,” Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna reported from Washington, DC, citing recent sanctions imposed by the US on Russia.

On the question of what steps the US could take against Russia, Hanna said: “There are possibly steps like the expulsion of an ambassador. That would be an extreme diplomatic step taken by the US government.”

‘Deeply concerned’

The European Union on Sunday said it was “deeply concerned” about reports concerning Navalny’s health and called for his “immediate and unconditional release”.

“The Russian authorities are responsible for Mr Navalny’s safety and health in the penal colony, to which we hold them to account,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said in a statement.

The matter is on the agenda of an EU foreign ministers’ videoconference to be held on Monday, Borrell said.

The Russian ambassador in London told the UK’s BBC on Sunday that Navalny “will not be allowed to die in prison”.

“Of course, he will not be allowed to die in prison, but I can say that Mr Navalny, he behaves like a hooligan,” said ambassador Andrei Kelin.

“His public purpose, all of that, is to attract attention for him also – by saying that today his left hand is sick. Tomorrow his leg is sick.”

Meanwhile, Vladimir Ashurkov, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and a friend of Navalny, said he was in touch with the Kremlin critic’s wife who said she was “very worried” about his condition.

“We all hope that Navalny is given the proper medical care. This is the only demand he has in connection with his hunger strike,” he added.

‘Can’t wait any more’

Navalny’s team called for protests across Russia on Wednesday evening, just hours after Putin is set to deliver a national address.

“It’s time to act. We are talking not just about Navalny’s freedom but his life,” Navalny’s right-hand man Leonid Volkov said on Facebook on Sunday.

Volkov said Wednesday’s rally could become a decisive battle against “absolute evil” or Russia’s last opposition rally for years to come.

“Right now he is being killed in a prison, and you can’t wait any more.”

“Call on all your acquaintances and take to central squares,” wrote Volkov, who heads Navalny’s regional offices, adding that the protests should be massive.

Ashurkov told Al Jazeera he hoped that “up to 500,000 people take to the streets”.

“There has been outpouring of support from world leaders and opinion leaders … we believe all of this will have an impact,” he added.

There was no immediate comment from police or government officials about the call for protests.

Russian police detained thousands of people in January as protesters took to the streets across the country demanding Navalny’s release.

Police arrested more than 10,000 people during nationwide pro-Navalny protests in January [File: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images]

Navalny was arrested on January 17 when he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin.

Russian officials have denied any involvement and even questioned whether Navalny was poisoned, which was confirmed by several European laboratories.

Navalny was ordered to serve two and a half years in prison on the grounds that his long recovery in Germany violated a suspended sentence he had been given for a fraud conviction in a case that Navalny says was politically motivated.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies