The White House on Wednesday condemned the treatment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny after he was secretly transferred to a maximum-security prison known for its brutal conditions.
A day earlier, his lawyers and supporters said they feared the worst when told he was no longer in the penal colony where he was serving his sentence.
It eventually emerged that Vladimir Putin’s leading critic had been moved 100 miles to a prison notorious for its treatment of inmates.
The White House called for his immediate release.
“The United States has strongly condemned the Russian Federation’s orchestration of false allegations and a sham trial against Alexei Navalny,” a White House spokesman said.
“We reiterate our call for his immediate and unconditional release.
“The Russian authorities should immediately end their campaign of harassment and intimidation against his supporters.”
Alexei Navalny was sentenced to nine years in prison on fraud and contempt of court – charges he says served to silence his opposition. On Tuesday, he was secretly transferred to a maximum security prison, leading to a scramble from his followers to find him
Local media eventually reported that he was staying in the Melekhovo colony in the Vladimir region of Russia
The facility is known for the brutal treatment of inmates. Last year, Mediazona published allegations that the prison was permeated by torture and sexual violence.
The alarm was sounded on Tuesday when lawyers arrived for a meeting with the 46-year-old opposition leader at the IK-2 penal colony in Pokrov, some 60 miles east of Moscow.
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, posted on the Telegram app that his lawyer visited him but had to wait for hours at a checkpoint before being told, “There is no such convict.”
The result was a mess to find him.
“We don’t know where Alexey is now and what prison he’s being taken to,” Volkov added.
For a prisoner arrested in January 2021 after returning from Germany, where he was recovering from nerve agent poisoning, a secret transfer always carries the possibility of an ominous fate.
He has claimed that the charges against him are politically motivated and designed to silence his opposition.
In March he was sentenced to nine years in prison for fraud and contempt of court.
His supporters later said they were told he had been transferred to a maximum security prison.
President Vladimir Putin has been accused of using harsh tactics to silence opponents, and undercover agents have used nerve agents and other poisons to target dissidents
“The problem with moving him to another colony isn’t just that the maximum security colony is much scarier,” said his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh.
“As long as we don’t know where Alexei is, he stays one on one with the system that has already tried to kill him, so our main task now is to find him as soon as possible.”
Russian news agencies later reported that he was taken to the IK-6 prison in the village of Melekhovo, some 250 kilometers east of Moscow.
Last year, the independent media outlet Mediazona published allegations that the prison was being plagued by torture and sexual violence.
The Foreign Ministry also condemned Navalny’s treatment and called for his immediate release.
“We are calling on the Russian authorities to allow Mr. Navalny access to his lawyers, legal representation and medical care,” said spokesman Ned Price.
“We have repeatedly informed the Russian government that they are responsible for what is happening to Mr. Navalny since he is in their custody.
“You will be held accountable by the international community if anything happens to Mr. Navalny.”
‘Paul is rotting in a Russian gulag’: Sister of imprisoned American Paul Whelan calls for ‘more coordinated effort’ by Biden administration to free ex-Marine as state official meets imprisoned basketball player Brittney Griner’s WNBA team
The sister of Paul Whelan, a former Marine jailed in Russia for four years, on Tuesday urged the Biden administration to do more to bring him home.
He is serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted of espionage after what American officials called an unfair trial.
His sister Elizabeth said US authorities had failed to explain how they freed Trevor Reed, another American wrongly imprisoned, in a prisoner exchange but had yet to secure her brother’s release.
“But I think what we’re really concerned about is that there appears to be a lack of a coordinated effort to bring Paul home and other unlawfully detained people as well,” she said.
“Furthermore, trades are not the only tools that the US government could use.
“And I’m really concerned that everyone has been cornered about whether it’s a deal or not.
“Meanwhile, Paul is rotting away in a Russian gulag, waiting for someone to fix it.”
Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine arrested on charges of espionage, listens to the verdict in a courtroom of the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Russia June 15, 2020
Elizabeth Whelan said she would like a “more coordinated” and “creative” approach by the Biden administration to try to bring her brother home from Russia, where he is in prison
Whelan was arrested at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 and arrested on espionage charges.
He has repeatedly maintained his innocence but was found guilty and sentenced in June 2020.
In contrast, Reed was released in April after more than two years in prison. It came as part of a prisoner swap involving a Russian national convicted of drug trafficking in the US.
Meanwhile, it emerged that State Department officials met with members of Griner’s WNBA team Monday to secure her release following her arrest in February.
Authorities said a search of her bag at an airport discovered vape cartridges containing a cannabis derivative.
In the case of Whelan, speculation focused on the possibility of trading him for Viktor Bout – a Russian arms dealer nicknamed the “Dealer of Death”.
He was found guilty by a New York court of conspiring to kill Americans, supplying anti-aircraft missiles and aiding a terrorist group and sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2011.
Elizabeth Whelan said she doesn’t know exactly what’s on the table but urged the Biden administration to be creative.
“And I think we’re what we’re really looking for, we’re looking for the White House, to change the rules of the game, you know, create a faster response, a more coordinated effort to get Paul out and most importantly, you think about punishing these bad actors,” she said.
“You know, what happened to Paul is unscrupulous.
Former US Marine Trevor Reed was swapped for convicted Russian drug dealer Konstantin Yaroshenko in a prisoner swap at a Turkish airport on Wednesday
“And we really appreciate what Trevor Reed is trying to do to help him, and we want to make sure the US government doesn’t limit their creativity in solving this problem in any way.”
With up to 800 Russians in US prisons, she added, there are many options for a deal.
“And I think what’s really important is this idea that we need the executive agencies to be one step ahead and not just respond to Russian demands,” she said.
“So our family has a lot of mixed feelings. We want Paul back in any way we can.
“But we also want to make sure whatever happens doesn’t make it even more difficult to get other inmates home.”
She spoke after the State Department confirmed that officials had met Griner’s Phoenix Mercury teammates.
“There’s a lot involved in getting them home and safe, they work tirelessly,” Mercury star Diana Taurasi said in a Mercury press release after the meeting.
FILE – Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner during the first half of Game 2 of the WNBA Finals in basketball against the Chicago Sky, Oct. 13, 2021, in Phoenix. Brittney Griner is by far the most prominent American woman imprisoned by a foreign country
Brittney Griner was able to receive emails and letters from WNBA players to an account that Griner’s agent set up so they could communicate with her
“We are here to do whatever it takes to keep BG going strong and at the top, which is more important than any basketball game and anything else that goes on in our lives.
“We want BG to come home as soon as possible, it’s number one on our list.
The government has previously said it is working to bring Griner home from Russia.
“Knowing the State Department at the highest level, from US President Joe Biden to the team working to bring back all wrongfully imprisoned Americans, gives us a lot of confidence that they are working on this,” Taurasi said.
Griner was arrested at an airport in Russia on February 17 after authorities there said a search of her bag found vape cartridges containing a cannabis derivative.
In May, the State Department again found Griner wrongly imprisoned and assigned oversight of her case to the State Department’s Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, or SPEHA.