Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition politician, has been removed from the IK-6 penal colony in the Vladimir region, east of Moscow, and his whereabouts are not known, his allies said on Monday.
Mr Navalny’s aides have been preparing for his possible transfer to a harsher colony after he was sentenced in August to an additional 19 years in prison.
Kira Yarmysh, Mr Navalny’s spokesman, said staff at the IK-6 colony in the town of Melekhovo had told his lawyer that the opposition leader was no longer among its inmates.
“Where they have taken him, they refuse to say,” she said on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
‘Cut off’ from the outside world
The process of transferring prisoners by rail across Russia’s vast territory can take weeks, with relatives and family unable to obtain information about their whereabouts and wellbeing until they reach their destination.
Mr Navalny’s lawyers have been unable to contact him since last Tuesday.
Lyubov Sobol, his aide, told Reuters last week that his supporters feared he was being transferred to a new penal colony, and that the timing was linked to the start of a presidential election campaign in which Vladimir Putin has said he will seek another six-year term.
“They are so afraid of Navalny, who is in prison, who has limited correspondence rights, can’t see his family and so on, that during the period when Putin would declare, they decided to just cut off Navalny as far as possible from the outside world. God forbid he should make some kind of statement,” she said.
Despite his incarceration, Navalny has often been able through his lawyers to post trenchant attacks on the Kremlin via social media, describing his ordeal behind bars and condemning Putin over the war in Ukraine. But his isolation deepened when three of his lawyers were arrested in October on suspicion of “extremist” activity.
The 47-year-old is by far the best known opposition figure in Russia. For years, he has branded Putin and the ruling elite a gang of “crooks and thieves”, lampooning them in slick videos watched millions of times on YouTube.
He earned admiration around the world for voluntarily returning to Russia in 2021 from Germany, where he underwent treatment for what Western laboratory tests showed was an attempt to poison him with a nerve agent in Siberia. He was immediately arrested on arrival.
Navalny says the many charges against him – from fraud and contempt of court to a range of “extremist” activities – were all trumped up to silence his attacks on Putin.
Russian authorities view Navalny and his supporters as extremists with links to Western intelligence agencies intent on trying to destabilise Russia. Putin has warned the West that any meddling inside Russia will be considered an act of aggression.