Vladimir Putin’s main political opponent Alexei Navalny is missing after being removed by officials from a prison colony in Russia, his allies say.
The alarm was raised after the politician failed to show for a scheduled court appearance via videolink on Monday, with friends saying they had also not heard from him in six days.
The 47-year-old has been behind bars since January 2021 on what supporters say are politically-motivated charges.
Mr Navalny was transferred to the IK-6 jail in Melekhovo, east of Moscow, last year, but his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said staff there had now confirmed he had been removed from the facility.
She added on X, formerly Twitter: “Where they have taken him, they refuse to say.”
Ms Yarmysh said prison officials claimed he had not appeared via videolink as expected because of “electricity problems”.
It comes just days after Mr Putin announced he would stand for re-election next year – potentially keeping him in power until at least 2030.
Mr Navalny’s aide Leonid Volkov also posted on X that the timing was “0% coincidence and 100% direct manual political control from the Kremlin.”
He added: “It is no secret to Putin who his main opponent is in these ‘elections’. And he wants to make sure that Navalny’s voice is not heard.”
The politician has been one of the Russian president’s fiercest critics in recent years and helped organise large-scale anti-Kremlin protests.
But he was arrested in January 2021 after returning to Moscow from Germany, where he had been recuperating from being poisoned by a nerve agent.
Mr Navalny lost an appeal in September against a 19-year prison term for alleged extremist activity which was handed down in August and came on top of an existing 11-and-a-half year sentence for fraud and other charges.
Following the latest sentencing his allies said they had been expecting him to be moved to a “special regime” prison colony, the harshest grade in Russia’s prison system, but had not been given any further information.
So much for Russian justice
Navalny’s team say this kind of an extended period without contact with him is unprecedented.
It is quite possible that the authorities have decided now is the right moment to transfer him to a special regime colony, as mandated in his last 19 year sentence handed down in August.
If so, the transfer may take weeks (an unpleasant journey, most likely by rail), it may be weeks before his lawyers are informed where he is and even longer before they manage to get to him.
Given longstanding concerns over his health, this is worrying.
Leonid Volkov, a Navalny aide, posted that the timing of his disappearance was “0% accidental and 100% directly political manual control from the Kremlin.”
To date Navalny’s social media channels have managed a steady stream of commentary which purports to be from him, and may come via his lawyers though it may also be written for him by his team.
It is likely that his ability to communicate with the outside world will diminish or be cut altogether in a special regime colony, which is the harshest type of prison Russia has.
Access to lawyers will most likely be reduced also. So perhaps the decision was made to put him out of sight, out of mind at this early stage in the presidential campaign.
That said, his anti-corruption foundation – labelled a foreign agent in Russia and operating now from abroad – is already kicking up a storm and his disappearance just days before President Putin’s annual press conference brings the topic of Navalny back into the