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Who is poisoning Russian dissidents and why? | Russia



On Thursday morning, Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny walked out of a hotel in the Siberian city of Tomsk and headed for the airport to catch a flight back to Moscow. His trip to the Tomsk region was part of his campaign to “nullify United Russia” by voting the party of Russian President Vladimir Putin out of power in the upcoming local elections.

At the airport, Navalny and a few members of his team had tea and boarded the plane. Shortly after takeoff, the 44-year-old politician started feeling unwell. He went to the lavatory and could not come out. The aeroplane was forced to do an emergency landing in Omsk. Fellow passengers heard Navalny screaming in excruciating pain before he was taken out of the plane by medical personnel. Shortly after he was hospitalised, he fell into a coma.

The intensive care ward where he was kept soon filled up with plain-clothes and uniformed security officers, who at some point seemed to outnumber the medical staff.

Doctors and policemen gave contradictory information; first, they claimed a dangerous chemical was discovered in Navalny’s blood, then that no such substance was detected. When Navalny’s wife Yulia and press secretary Kira Yarmysh demanded that he be flown abroad for treatment, citing the substandard conditions of the hospital where he was kept and its lack of equipment to provide proper care, medical staff refused, claiming that any such move would worsen his condition.

On Friday evening, after a number of Western leaders concerned about Navalny’s wellbeing phoned Putin, the hospital finally released him and he was flown to Germany for treatment.

Russian activist and founder of the media outlet Mediazona, Petr Verzilov said that all of this reminded him of what he went through when he was allegedly poisoned two years ago.

“Everything begins with a place which can be easily controlled, in the case of Navalny, this was the airport; in my case – the court,” he told me. On September 11, 2018, Verzilov spent the whole day in court, where his girlfriend Nika Nikulshina was being tried for running onto the pitch wearing a police uniform during the World Cup. At 6pm, they headed home, where Verzilov had a nap. A couple of hours later, when he tried to go out, he felt sick; his eyesight, speech and movement started deteriorating and he eventually slipped into delirium, unable to recognise his own girlfriend.

In the hospital, the same scene played out – a great number of security personnel preventing relatives and associates from seeing him. The Russian doctors also did not find any toxin in his blood and delayed his transfer abroad. He arrived in Germany for treatment on September 15. By then, his body is thought to have gotten rid of the poison, which made identifying it very difficult. German doctors hypothesised that hyoscine may have been used to poison Verzilov, as it is known to cause symptoms similar to those he displayed.

Another opposition politician, Vladimir Kara-Murza has also said the circumstances of Navalny’s illness reminded him of what he believes were two attempts to poison him.

The first time was in May 2015, shortly after opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed just a few hundred metres from the walls of the Kremlin. Before his death, he and Kara-Murza had supported the application of the Magnitsky Act, a bill aimed to impose sanctions on members of Putin’s inner circle over human rights violations.

Kara-Murza survived, but doctors did not find a toxin in his blood and claimed he must have overdosed on anti-depressants – an idea rejected by independent medical professionals. Samples of his blood, hair and nails were sent to France, where experts found a high concentration of heavy metals.

The second attempt took place in 2017. Kara-Murza suffered similar symptoms as the first time – sudden deterioration of his health and multiple organ failure. It was a miracle he survived and again no toxin was found in his blood.

All of these cases seem similar to the suspected poisoning of famous journalist Anna Politkovskaya. In September 2004, while on her way to Beslan in North Ossetia, where terrorists had just taken hostage students and teachers at a local school, Politkovskaya fell suddenly sick after having tea and fell into a coma. She also survived but again, no poisonous substance was found. Two years later, she was shot dead.

Of course, there is also the poisoning of former double agent Sergey Skripal in the British city of Salisbury, with the nerve agent Novichok. Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious on a bench in the town centre. The British authorities later found traces of the chemical in his home and accused Russian military intelligence (GRU) agents of being responsible for the poisoning. Both Skripal and his daughter survived.

All of these cases have a lot in common – they seem to all involve a certain neurotoxin which gives the victim a chance to survive. They differ from other cases – such as ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning with polonium in London in 2006 or that of journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin, who was also possibly killed with a radioactive substance in 2003 – where the chemical of choice ensures certain death.

Thus, it is possible that in Navalny’s case, like others similar to his, poisoning is meant to scare, not to kill. For Verzilov, that was a way to suggest to him that he needs to stop his investigation into the killing of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic. For Kara-Murza – this was to tell him to stop lobbying for sanctions on people close to the Kremlin. For Skripal – not to cooperate with the British intelligence. For Politkovskaya – not to go to Beslan.

Navalny, like everyone else above, is a prominent critic of the Kremlin and the structures and people close to it. But he has been openly critical for a while and for a few years now has been mobilising political protests and conducting major investigations into high-level corruption, which have angered many in the Russian ruling elite.

So the question is, why send him a warning that he is no longer safe and should consider going abroad now? The answer is simple: Putin’s rating has fallen to an all-time low and his decision to change the constitution to potentially extend his term beyond 2024 stirred so much anger that only the coronavirus pandemic managed to stop it from spilling into the streets.

Still, even in the current epidemic conditions, protests have broken out in some places. In Khabarovsk region, demonstrations against the removal of a popular governor have been going on for more than a month now.

More importantly, in neighbouring Belarus, ordinary people have mounted a major campaign of civil disobedience against longtime President Alexander Lukashenko. They have protested the rigging of the presidential elections en masse, engaged in labour strikes, defected from state institutions, persevered in the face of police brutality and torture, etc.

The scenes of mass demonstrations in Belarus have evoked much sympathy among various layers of society in Russia: from the urban intelligentsia to factory workers and even football fans. Navalny’s trips across the country would have surely inflamed further anti-government sentiments.

Incapacitating Navalny could undermine the ability of dissenting Russians to organise, by depriving them of a charismatic leader. This could deescalate the situation and preclude mass protests, but it could also have the opposite effect. If the poisoning is proven, this could fuel further public anger and result in spontaneous mobilisation.

Nemtsov’s murder followed the first scenario. The outpouring of anger following his death was contained in mourning rallies. In the case of Navalny, however, the second scenario is quite likely.

In the past few years, a new generation has come of age which is more tech-savvy and more politicised than previous ones, and have repeatedly demonstrated that they do not fear the Kremlin’s repressive tactics.

Meanwhile, the Belarus example has shown that political mobilisation by far does not depend on one leader and can persist and grow even when opposition figures are imprisoned and forced into exile.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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‘Almost 180-degree turnaround’: More Black Americans open to jabs | Coronavirus pandemic News




More Black people in the United States say they are open to receiving coronavirus vaccines, a new survey shows, an encouraging sign that one community leader described as “almost a 180-degree turnaround” from earlier in the pandemic.

According to the late March poll by the Associated Press news agency and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, about 24 percent of Black people said they would probably or definitely not get vaccinated.

That is down from 41 percent in January, and is similar to the proportion of white people (26 percent) and Hispanic Americans (22 percent) who also say they do not plan to get jabs.

The findings come as US President Joe Biden’s administration works to speed up inoculations to try to outpace a recent rise in infections, after he promised that all adults would be eligible for a jab by April 19.

Public health experts had raised concerns about the need to ensure that Black and other communities of colour in the US, which have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, had equitable access to vaccines.

Local leaders said vaccine hesitancy was fuelled in part by decades of institutional discrimination in healthcare and other public services.

Dr Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told AP that attitudes among Black people have taken “almost a 180-degree turnaround” as outreach campaigns have worked to combat misinformation.

Benjamin said Black physicians, faith leaders and other organisers have helped get targeted messaging to the community “in a way that wasn’t preachy”.

“They didn’t tell people, ‘You need to get vaccinated because it’s your duty.’ They basically said, ‘Listen, you need to get vaccinated to protect yourself and your family,’” he said.

Mattie Pringle, a 57-year-old Black woman from South Carolina who previously had doubts about taking the vaccine, said she changed her mind after a member of her church urged her to reconsider. She got her first jab last week.

“I had to pray about it, and I felt better after that,” Pringle told AP.

Medical and public health experts have continued to urge people in the US to get vaccinated in an effort to slow the spread of the disease, which has killed more than 561,000 people across the country – the highest death rate in the world.

The US, which has reported over 31 million cases to date, has authorised three vaccines for emergency use: the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson jabs.

So far, more than 178.8 million vaccine doses have been administered countrywide, while 68.2 million people are considered fully vaccinated, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Recent surveys have shown that more Americans in general say they intend to get vaccinated than previously did.

The Pew Research Center reported in early March that 19 percent of US adults said they had already received at least one dose, while another 50 percent said they probably or definitely would get vaccinated.

“Taken together, 69 percent of the public intends to get a vaccine – or already has – up significantly from 60 percent who said they planned to get vaccinated in November,” it said.

Other recent surveys show that attitudes towards vaccines are split along political lines. A survey at Monmouth University released last month found that 36 percent of Republicans said they would avoid the vaccine compared with just six percent of Democrats.

That prompted top US infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, to call on former President Donald Trump to encourage his supporters to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, experts are urging Americans to take whichever vaccine is available to protect themselves and avoid delays.

“When people come in, I always advise them to get the vaccine that’s available because you never know what vaccine is going to be available the next time,” Reham Awad, a pharmacy intern in the Chicago area, told Al Jazeera this week.

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Erdogan urges end to Ukraine tension, offers Turkey’s support | Conflict News




Turkish president says tensions between Kyiv and Moscow over Donbass conflict have to be resolved through dialogue.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for the “worrying” developments in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to come to an end after meeting his Ukrainian counterpart in Istanbul, adding Turkey was ready to provide any necessary support.

Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held talks in Istanbul on Saturday amid tensions between Kyiv and Moscow over the long-running conflict in Donbass.

Speaking at a news conference alongside Zelenskyy, Erdogan said he hoped the conflict would be resolved peacefully, through dialogue based on diplomatic customs, in line with international laws and Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

“Our main goal is that the Black Sea continues to be a sea of peace, tranquility and cooperation,” Erdogan said.

Zelenskyy said the views of Kyiv and Ankara coincided regarding the threats in the region and as well as responses to those threats.

Erdogan stressed that Turkey’s cooperation with Ukraine in the defence industry, which was the main item on the meeting’s agenda, was not a move against any third countries.

Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu, reporting from Istanbul, said Ukraine was purchasing Turkey’s military drones.

She also said that “new generation drones will be equipped with the Ukrainian engines”.

Regional tensions

Zelenskyy’s visit to Turkey comes amid renewed tensions in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014.

In a visit to troops there this week, Zelenskyy said breaches of a July truce were increasing.

Separatist authorities have also accused Ukrainian forces of violating the ceasefire.

Russia has reinforced its troops along the border and warned Ukraine against trying to retake control of the separatist-controlled territory.

Kyiv rejects that it is preparing for an offensive. The Russian military buildup has raised concerns in the United States and Europe.

The Turkish and Russian presidents spoke on the phone on Friday. Among the issues discussed was Ukraine.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin expressed concern that Ukraine “recently resumed dangerous provocations on the contact line”.

Turkey is a NATO member. But Erdogan and Putin have forged a close personal relationship, sealing energy and trade deals.

They have also negotiated for opposing sides in conflicts, including Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Erdogan’s office also said he would discuss with Zelenskyy the living conditions of Crimean Tatars, who have ethnic links to Turks. Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

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Libya kicks off delayed COVID-19 vaccination drive | Coronavirus pandemic News




Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah receives shot on live television, urges Libyans to register online for their own vaccinations.

Libya has launched its delayed COVID-19 vaccination drive, with Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, prime minister of the country’s new unity government, getting his shot on live television.

Officially, Libya has registered a total of about 167,000 coronavirus cases, including more than 2,800 deaths, out of a population of seven million. Its healthcare system has struggled to cope during the pandemic, strained by years of political turmoil and violence.

After the vaccination of Dbeibah on Saturday at the headquarters of Libya’s Centre for Disease Control on the outskirts of the capital, Tripoli, Health Minister Ali al-Zenati was next to receive a jab.

Libya has so far received 200,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, alongside more than 57,600 AstraZeneca shots, the latter delivered through the COVAX programme for lower and middle-income countries.

Dbeibah urged fellow citizens to register online for their own vaccinations. He has earmarked the vaccination campaign as a policy priority, alleging that the delivery of the shots was hindered by outgoing authorities.

“The arrival of vaccines has been delayed by political, not financial, considerations,” he said.

Dbeibah’s interim Government of National Unity was sworn in last month [Mahmud Turkia/AFP]

Dbeibah was selected earlier this year through a United Nations-sponsored Libyan dialogue to lead the country to national elections in December.

His government replaces two warring administrations based in Tripoli and the country’s east, the latter loyal to renegade military commander Khalifa Hafar. The rival authorities have given their backing to the new administration, adding to tentative hopes that Libya can exit a decade of crisis.

‘Better late than never’

The World Health Organization said on Thursday that two new variants of the coronavirus are present in Libya, which has lately been detecting about 1,000 new daily infections.

No lockdown measures are currently in place, and while masks are obligatory in public places, the measure is widely flouted.

“I feel sorry that the vaccine arrived late in Libya after thousands were infected. But better late than never,” shop owner Ali al-Hadi told Reuters news agency, adding that his wife had been sick with COVID-19 and recovered.

Many Libyans fear the vaccination campaign could be marred by political infighting or favouritism after years of unrest.

“We hope the health ministry will steer away from political conflicts so that services can reach patients,” said housewife Khawla Muhammad, 33.

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