Alexei Navalny: Russian authorities play cat and mouse game with jailed Kremlin critic and his team

·3-min read

Outside penal colony number 2 in Pokrov, Russia, a swarm of journalists huddle around a tall, blonde woman wearing a long, flowing white dress, a red sash and black coat.

Anastasia Vasilyeva, head of the Alliance of Doctors, was dressed to be seen.

Her outfit was just the kind that works on camera - an image of grace pitted against the black-clad police guarding the prison gates.

IK-2 in Pokrov is the prison where Putin critic Alexei Navalny is currently interned.

Vasilyeva is a close associate of Navalny, just out of house arrest herself for calling for rallies during the pandemic.

When the police came to arrest her at home in January, she played a Beethoven piano sonata. Today she was going for a more sartorial vibe.

"I'll come back every day until they provide either me or a medical specialist access to Alexei," she told journalists.

I asked her if she'd spoken to Navalny's wife Yulia about this visit.

"Of course," she said. "She wants to know what's happened to him, she wants him to have the doctor he asked for weeks ago already."

This is Alexei Navalny's sixth day on hunger strike - he says it is the only way he has of persuading the prison authorities to provide him with a doctor he trusts.

He has been suffering acute pain in his back and numbness in his legs and he says all he's received from prison medics was a couple of ibuprofen.

Navalny posted on Instagram on Monday, via his lawyers, that he had a temperature and bad cough and that three of his cell mates had been hospitalised for tuberculosis.

One Russian newspaper said he'd been transferred to the prison hospital, but authorities at the jail refused to confirm that.

The Kremlin would not comment on his condition but said he would be given the same treatment as any other inmate who was ill.

Navalny's supporters don't believe that.

"I think Putin is not going to stop until he cripples Navalny because that short, disgusting, intelligence agent envies this young, tall, beautiful man," said Irina Gracheva.

She had travelled 200km (124 miles) to register her protest outside the prison and was unusually frank.

"Putin is a threat for the whole world," she said.

"Navalny is an idea. An idea that Russia could be rich, successful, and a well developed country. A country where we want to live," said Ivan Tumanov, an activist who plans to set up a Navalny team headquarters in the nearby town of Vladimir.

The girl next to him threw her arms around him. It was clearly an idea she could get behind.

After a few hours waiting without luck for a meeting with the prison governor, Anastasia Vasilyeva was arrested.

Police hauled her and six others, including two journalists, into a police van. She was later released only to be arrested again by road police.

Her lawyer says it is a tactic to try and ensure she misses the 8pm curfew she's still under, which would mean the authorities could return her to house arrest.

That's the game of cat and mouse they play with Alexei Navalny and all who work for him.

Vasilyeva has been arrested many times before, she knows the score.

So does Navalny. For him it has not ended well. Now his supporters are doing what they can to make sure it does not get any worse.