Imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny said Friday he is ending his hunger strike after getting medical attention and being warned by his doctors that continuing it would put his life at risk.
In an Instagram post on the 24th day of his hunger strike, Navalny said he will continue to demand a visit from his doctor to address numbness in his legs and arms -– his main demand. But he said he would halt the strike after having been examined by doctors who were not affiliated with the prison, something he called “a huge progress.”
He also acknowledged the mass pro-Navalny protests across Russia on Wednesday and multiple letters and statements supporting him from public figures and government officials around the globe.
“Thanks to the huge support of good people across the country and around the world, we have made huge progress,” Navalny said in his message from behind bars. “Two months ago, my requests for medical help were prompting smirks. I wasn’t given any medications. ... Thanks to you, now I have been examined by a panel of civilian doctors twice.”
Another reason he was ending the hunger strike was that some of his supporters were refusing to eat in a show of solidarity with him, Navalny said.
“Tears flowed from my eyes when I read that. God, I'm not even acquainted with these people, and they do this for me. Friends, my heart is full of love and gratitude for you, but I don't want anyone physically suffering because of me,” said the 44-year-old politician, who is President Vladimir Putin's most prominent critic.
He said he would start “coming out of the hunger strike” on Friday and the process of ending it will take 24 days.
Navalny started the strike March 31, after developing severe pain in his back and loss of sensation in his legs. Prison officials have said he was getting all the medical help he needs, but Navalny insisted he effectively received no treatment.
Navalny’s doctors said Saturday they feared he was close to dying because his test results showed sharply elevated levels of potassium, which can bring on cardiac arrest, and heightened creatinine levels that indicated impaired kidneys.
He was transferred Sunday from a penal colony east of Moscow to the hospital ward of another prison in Vladimir, a city 180 kilometers (110 miles) east of the capital.
The day after mass protests demanding his freedom swept across Russia, a team of his doctors released a letter urging him to end his hunger strike.
The letter revealed that Navalny was taken to a regular hospital Tuesday in Vladimir, where he underwent tests and was examined by specialists “in accordance” with requests from his doctors. It said they were given the results of those tests through Navalny’s lawyers and family on Thursday.
The doctors said they would continue to insist on access to Navalny but also urged him “to immediately stop the hunger strike in order to save life and health,” saying that they considered being examined by “civilian” doctors from outside the prison and undergoing “objective tests” enough to end the strike.
In another statement after Navalny announced an end to hunger strike, his team of doctors said more tests were needed to figure out the diagnosis and demanded he be transferred to a well-equipped hospital in Moscow and offered adequate pain relief.
“He has been experiencing pain for two months,” said the statement, published in the Novaya Gazeta newspaper. “It's been two months since the symptoms occurred, but a proper diagnosis hasn't been determined so far.”
Navalny was arrested in January upon his return from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from a poisoning with the nerve agent that he blames on the Kremlin — accusations that Russian officials reject.
He was promptly put on trial for violating terms of a suspended sentence stemming from a 2014 embezzlement conviction, which he says was politically motivated. He was ordered to serve the rest of a 2½-year sentence.
Navalny's arrest triggered mass protests — the biggest show of defiance the Kremlin has encountered in years. The authorities responded with harsh crackdown, arresting thousands and jailing hundreds. Navalny's aides and associates across Russia were also targeted with detentions and raids. Some of his top allies have been slapped with criminal charges and put under house arrest.
Last week, Russian authorities took the pressure to a new level, with the Moscow prosecutor’s office petitioning a court to label as his Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his network of regional offices as extremist groups. Human rights activists say such a move would paralyze their activities and expose their members and donors to prison sentences of up to 10 years.
In the meantime, Navalny will face some tough days, his close ally Lyubov Sobol said in a Facebook post. “Very difficult days of coming out of starvation will come now. I know myself,” wrote Sobol, who spent 32 days on a hunger strike in 2019.
“The first week of coming out is essentially the same hunger strike: You're not allowed to eat anything, just drink juices and very thin porridges, in very little amounts. ... (He) won't start eating solid food any time soon," she said, adding that a lack of access to normal food and fresh produce in prison complicates the situation.