Allies of imprisoned Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny have sounded the alarm, saying the Kremlin critic is missing from the prison where he was serving his time.
Most likely he is being transferred to another prison, associates say, but in Russia prison transfers take days, if not weeks, and are shrouded in secrecy.
“All this time that we don’t know where Alexei is, he is left alone with the system that has already once tried to kill him,” Mr Navalny’s spokesman Kira Yarmysh said on social media.
His closest ally, Leonid Volkov, said on Telegram that the politician’s lawyer went to visit him in prison on Tuesday and was told “there is no such convict here”.
“Where Alexei is now and which prison he is being taken to, we don’t know,” Mr Volkov said.
Mr Navalny, the most determined political opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was arrested in January 2021 on returning from Germany, where he had been recuperating from nerve-agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin, and was handed a two-and-a-half-year sentence for a parole violation.
In March, he was sentenced to nine years in prison for fraud and contempt of court, charges he rejected as politically motivated and an attempt by the authorities to keep him behind bars for as long as possible.
The judge ordered the Kremlin critic to serve the new sentence in a maximum security prison. He was supposed to be transferred to one after he lost his appeal.
The new conviction followed a year-long Kremlin crackdown on Navalny supporters, other opposition activists and independent journalists in which authorities appeared eager to stifle all dissent.
Mr Navalny’s close associates have faced criminal charges and many have left the country, while his group’s political infrastructure — an anti-corruption foundation and a nationwide network of regional offices — has been destroyed after being labelled an extremist organisation.
Until now, Mr Navalny has been at the IK-2 penal colony in the Vladimir region, about 60 miles east of the Russian capital. The facility in the town of Pokrov stands out among Russian penitentiaries for its especially strict inmate routines, which include standing at attention for hours.
Ms Yarmysh cited rumours that Mr Navalny was supposed to be transferred to IK-6, a maximum security colony in the same region, 90 miles east of IK-2, but noted that “neither Alexei’s attorneys nor his relatives were informed about his transfer”.
Russia’s secrecy about prisoner transfers has come under criticism from human rights advocates.