United Nations human rights experts have expressed alarm at the deteriorating health of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who doctors have warned he "could die at any moment".
The Russian opposition figure has been on hunger strike since late March while incarcerated in a high-security penal colony. The UN intervention came hours ahead of nationwide protests calling for his release.
In a statement published on Wednesday, independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council called for Navalny's urgent medical evacuation from Russia. They said he was being held in a sub-standard facility and noted he had been denied access to doctors of his choosing.
“We are deeply troubled that Mr Navalny is being kept in conditions that could amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," the investigators wrote, "in a facility that reportedly does not meet international standards.
“Under international human rights law, when detaining a person, irrespective of the reason for the detention, the state bears full responsibility to care for his life and bodily integrity.
"Due to this heightened duty of care, the Government of the Russian Federation must take all necessary measures to protect Mr Navalny’s physical and mental health and well-being."
Navalny was arrested and immediately jailed on his return to Russia in January, having spent five months recovering in Germany from a nerve agent attack.
In February he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for alleged parole violations and sent to a penal colony in Pokrov. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that there is no valid legal basis for his arrest or detention.
“We are extremely concerned," the UN experts wrote, "that the current danger to Mr Navalny’s life, his most recent incarceration and the past attacks on him, including an attempt against his life last August with the nerve agent Novichok, which the Russian authorities have yet to effectively investigate, are all part of a deliberate pattern of retaliation against him for his criticism of the Russian Government and a gross violation of his human rights.”
Round-up of Navalny supporters ahead of protests
Russian police detained close allies of Navalny and carried out searches in over a dozen locations ahead of Wednesday's planned protests, his supporters said.
According to Vladimir Voronin, a lawyer for Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, his colleague Lyubol Sobol was pulled out of a taxi in central Moscow on Wednesday morning by police officers. He added that she is currently being held in a police van.
"This is a well-known dirty trick: as long as a person is on the bus, their detention time doesn't start," he added.
Navalny's spokeswoman Kira Yarmish, who has been under house arrest since late January, was also arrested, while on an authorised trip to the store, according to Leonid Volkov, Navalny's right-hand man.
The OVD-Info NGO also reported that searches had been carried out in premises linked to Navalny and his foundation in at least 20 Russian cities.
"The detention of supporters of Alexei Navalny in advance of planned protests in Russia today are deplorable," European Council President Charles Michel said on Twitter. "Authorities must respect the right to free assembly."
The Interior Ministry urged Russians not to take part in unauthorised rallies, citing coronavirus risks, and alleging that some “destructive-minded” participants might provoke unrest.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said police will treat any unauthorised protests as illegal. In the past, security forces have violently broken up demonstrations.
Navalny 'very weak'
The 44-year-old's associates say his condition has dramatically worsened in recent days.
"He is very weak, he has difficulty sitting up and talking," his lawyer Olga Mikhailova told reporters. "[He is] not receiving proper medical help." She demanded his transfer to a civilian hospital in the Russian capital.
But on Tuesday, several doctors including Navalny's personal physician say they were turned away from the prison hospital entrance. Dr Anastasia Vasilyeva said she and others were denied entry after waiting for hours outside the gates.
Navalny began his hunger strike on March 31 to protest against the prison officials' refusal to let his doctors visit him and provide adequate treatment for his back pains and the numbness in his legs, which they believe may be a result of the Novichok poisoning.
Russia's penitentiary service insisted that Navalny was getting all the medical help he needed and described his condition as "satisfactory".
Relatives of the Kremlin critic have warned that he could die at any moment, comments which have drawn international condemnation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also said she is "extremely concerned" and that the German government is "working to ensure that he receives proper medical care".
Navalny's arrest triggered the biggest protests seen across Russia in recent years. But Moscow has warned that it will not allow any "destabilisation" and will take "all necessary measures" against the planned demonstrations.
The Russian authorities, meanwhile, have escalated their crackdown on Navalny's supporters by asking a court to brand his Foundation for Fighting Corruption as an extremist organisation.
The Moscow prosecutor's office on Tuesday detailed the accusations against Navalny's organisations, saying it had collected proof of their alleged efforts to "destabilise the social and political situation in the country by calls for violence, extremist activities and mass riots" on behalf of unspecified "foreign centres" seeking to overthrow the Russian government.
Navalny's associates rejected and derided the charges.
The protests will be held amid rising tensions over a Russian troops buildup near Ukraine.
Russia insisted on Tuesday that it has the right to restrict foreign naval ships' movement off Crimea.
Ukraine last week protested the Russian move to close broad areas of the Black Sea near Crimea to foreign navy ships and state vessels until November.
The US also aired its concern on Monday, with State Department spokesman Ned Price saying “this represents yet another unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilise Ukraine.”
Price noted that the move "is particularly troubling amid credible reports of Russian troop buildup in occupied Crimea and around Ukraine’s borders."
The European Union also voiced concern about the troop buildup and the navigation restrictions.