BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday called on Russia to investigate the suspected poisoning of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and hold criminals accountable after doctors found evidence of a toxic substance in his body.
Navalny, a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, crashed on a plane in Russia last week and was flown to Germany for treatment on Saturday.
The Kremlin said it was unclear what caused Navalny to fall ill and that initial tests did not show he was poisoned because of his helpers.
But German doctors treating Navalny in a hospital in Berlin said Monday that medical tests indicated he was poisoned.
“In light of the leading role played by Mr Navalny in the political opposition in Russia, the authorities there are now urgently called upon to investigate this crime to the last detail – and do so in full transparency,” Merkel said in a joint statement with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.
“Those responsible need to be identified and held accountable,” Merkel added.
The Charite hospital in Berlin said a team of doctors there had examined him in detail after his arrival.
“Clinical findings indicate poisoning with a substance from the group of cholinesterase inhibitors,” the hospital said in a statement.
“The specific substance concerned remains unknown, and a further series of extensive tests has been initiated.”
Navalny has been a tornado on the side of the Kremlin for more than a decade, exposing what he says is high-level grafting and mobilizing crowds of young Protestants.
He has been arrested several times for organizing public meetings and gatherings and sued over his investigation into corruption. He was barred from running in a 2018 presidential election.
The German government said earlier that Navalny was being monitored at the hospital for safety reasons.
“Because one can say with almost certainty that it was a poisoning, protection is necessary,” Merkel’s chief spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters.
Russia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The incident could further highlight Russia’s shattered relations with its European and NATO neighbors, who have accused them of attacking dissidents in Europe in the past – accusations that Russia has rejected.
In their statement, the German doctors said that Navalny was treated in intensive care and remained in a medically induced coma. While his condition was serious, it was not life-threatening at the time, they said.
The outcome remained uncertain and long-term effects, particularly for the nervous system, could not be ruled out, the statement added.
Cholinesterase inhibitors are a group of chemical compounds used in everything from chemical weapons to pesticides designed to kill bugs, and human medicines designed to reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. Nerve gases and the so-called “Novichok” group of chemicals are also cholinesterase inhibitors.
The hospital statement said Navalny was being treated with the antidote atropine.
This is the same medicine used by British doctors to treat Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent, and his daughter Yulia, who were poisoned in 2018 with a nerve agent in Salisbury, England. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied involvement in that and other such incidents, citing accusations that it was responsible anti-Russian provocations.
Navalny crashed into a plane on Thursday after drinking tea on his way to a campaign in Siberia.
Doctors at the Siberian hospital that Navalny first treated said earlier on Monday that they had saved his life, but they found no trace of poison in his system. They had not come under pressure from authorities in dealing with Navalny, they said.
Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said supporters on Monday reported what she described as a suspected poisoning to Russian police and investigative commission as soon as Navalny became ill.
The police and investigative committee were not immediately available for comment.
Additional reports by Andreas Rinke in Berlin, Anton Zverev, Andrey Kuzmin and Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Additional Reporting by Kate Kelland; Edited by Angus MacSwan, Jon Boyle, William Maclean and Andrew Heavens