Alexei Navalny, the prominent Kremlin critic, arrived in Germany to receive treatment for a suspected poisoning, after doctors in Siberia dropped their objections to his transfer.
The plane carrying Mr Navalny from the Siberian city of Omsk touched down at Berlin’s Tegel airport on Saturday morning, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said. He was transferred for treatment to Berlin’s Charité, one of Germany’s best hospitals.
Russian doctors had initially blocked efforts to evacuate Mr Navalny from Russia, saying he was too unwell to travel. But they dropped their objections after intense lobbying by Mr Navalny’s family and supporters. They argued that his life would be in danger if he remained in Siberia.
Mr Navalny, the most prominent critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin, rose to fame thanks to his hugely popular exposés of official corruption on YouTube. The videos earned him a massive following among ordinary Russians and powerful enemies among the country’s officials and oligarchs.
Russia’s liberal opposition expressed relief that he was out of the country. “It’s as if, after long negotiations, terrorists had released a hostage,” said Ilya Yashin, a longtime ally of Mr Navalny. “I just hope that the time that’s been wasted won’t cost Alexei his life.”
Mr Navalny fell ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow on Thursday and collapsed in the plane’s bathroom, before falling into a coma. He had been in western Siberia meeting opposition candidates for local elections next month.
Aides said he had been poisoned after drinking a cup of tea at Tomsk airport, in an incident that has highlighted the life-threatening risks Kremlin critics face in Russia. The plane made an emergency landing in Omsk where he was rushed to hospital.
Approval for him to fly to a Berlin hospital was granted late on Friday, after his wife Yulia Navalnaya appealed directly to Mr Putin to let him leave Russia.
“The struggle for Alexey’s life and health is just beginning, and there is still a lot to go through, but now at least the first step has been taken,” Ms Yarmysh said after the plane took off from Omsk.
Mr Navalny was driven from the Omsk hospital to the airport in an ambulance with a police escort at dawn, before his stretcher was lifted into the small private jet. Ms Navalnaya joined him on board.
“Anti-Corruption Foundation continues its work,” Ivan Zhdanov, head of Mr Navalny’s organisation, tweeted as the plane took off.
While Mr Navalny’s supporters insisted he had been poisoned, Russian authorities said there was no evidence for this. Anatoly Kalinichenko, deputy chief doctor at the Omsk hospital where he had been treated, told reporters that medical personnel had found no traces of toxic substances in his system, and that he was “demonstrating a positive trajectory”.
After initially opposing his evacuation abroad, Mr Kalinichenko said he had “no objections to his transfer to another hospital”. He described his condition as stable.
Mr Navalny’s family and supporters said they feared the initial refusal to let him leave Russia was part of a cover-up to make it impossible to determine what substance caused him to lose consciousness.
“We think they are doing it so that the chemical substance in Alexei’s body disappears and there isn’t a trace left — that’s why they won’t hand him over,” said Ms Navalnaya. “He’s not in a good condition and we obviously can’t trust this hospital.”
Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s spokesman, said on Friday that the move to keep Mr Navalny in Omsk was “exclusively a medical decision”.
If confirmed, the suspected poisoning of Mr Navalny would be the sixth such attack on a Russian opposition activist in the past five years.
This would not be the first time Mr Navalny, who has been jailed 13 times for protesting against Mr Putin, has been targeted by the authorities. Last year he claimed he had been poisoned while serving one of many short jail sentences. In 2017, a pro-Kremlin activist attacked him with a chemical that left him partially blind in one eye.
On Thursday, French president Emmanuel Macron said his country and Germany would offer “all necessary assistance to Mr Navalny, in terms of healthcare, asylum and protection”.
The EU expects a “swift, independent and transparent investigation” and that if poisoning was confirmed, “those responsible must be held to account”, EU spokesperson Nabila Massrali said in a statement.
Mr Navalny’s evacuation to Berlin was organised by private supporters from in the initiative Cinema for Peace”, which is led by film producer Jaka Bizilj. Two years ago the group brought anti-Kremlin activist Pyotr Verzilov to Berlin after a suspected poisoning. Mr Verzilov is a member of the punk group Pussy Riot.