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Russia Navalny: Poisoned opposition leader flying home

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image copyrightReuters

image captionSupporters of Mr Navalny plan to meet him at the airport

Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny is due back in Moscow later on Sunday for the first time since he was nearly killed by a nerve agent attack last year.

He was seen boarding a Pobeda airlines plane in Berlin.

The activist says the authorities were behind the attempt on his life, an allegation backed up by investigative journalists but denied by the Kremlin.

Mr Navalny, 44, faces arrest on his return from Germany, where he has been receiving medical treatment.

He has appealed to supporters to meet him off the flight, and a “Let’s meet Navalny” page has been set up on Facebook (in Russian). Thousands of people have said they will go or expressed an interest, despite forecasts of extreme cold.

In a tweet, the opposition leader accused the Kremlin of encouraging people to go to Vnukovo airport to see a pop star, Olga Buzova, in a bid to squeeze out his supporters.

Mr Navalny collapsed on an internal flight in Siberia last August, and it later emerged he had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.

Russian authorities have consistently denied any role in the poisoning, and the Kremlin has rejected Mr Navalny’s claims that President Vladimir Putin himself ordered it.

The Putin critic has said he misses Moscow, is almost fully recovered from the attack, and that there was never any doubt he would return.

Why does he face arrest?

The Russian authorities have warned Mr Navalny could face imprisonment after missing a prison service deadline in December to report at an office in Moscow.

The prison service accuses him of violating conditions imposed after a conviction for embezzlement, for which he received a suspended sentence. He has always condemned the case as politically motivated.

Separately, Russia’s investigative committee has launched a new criminal case against him on fraud charges related to transfers of money to various NGOs, including his Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Mr Navalny has asserted that Mr Putin is doing all he can to stop his opponent from coming back by fabricating new cases against him.

News media from around the world gathered at Berlin airport to record the activist’s departure from Germany – but Russian federal TV channels and news agencies are ignoring his return.

What kind of reception will Navalny have?

Alexei Navalny has called on supporters to “come and meet me” at Vnukovo airport on Sunday, and a large crowd will likely try to do just that.

The opposition figure may be hoping for protection in numbers, concerned not only for his physical safety but the prospect of being marched off to prison on landing.

But the call for a welcome-home ceremony is also an open challenge to the man Mr Navalny accuses of ordering his murder: Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that, demanding proof the activist was even poisoned.

In December, Mr Putin argued that Alexei Navalny was a nobody and anyway, he actually laughed, if Russian security forces had wanted him dead, they’d have finished the job.

There were no street protests after Mr Navalny’s sudden collapse, and had he remained abroad his influence would have waned, inevitably. But he always vowed to return, despite the risk. The very public way he’s doing that suggests a man emboldened, rather than cowed, by his brush with death.

What happened to Navalny?

In August, the opposition leader collapsed on a plane flying home from Tomsk in Siberia to Moscow and the pilot diverted the flight to the city of Omsk, from where he was eventually allowed to fly on to Germany in an induced coma.

He was released from hospital in Berlin in September to continue his recuperation.

Mr Navalny said recently he was able to do push-ups and squat exercises, and therefore had probably almost fully recovered.

Last month, investigative reporters named three FSB agents who had travelled to Tomsk at the time Mr Navalny was there, and said the specialist unit had tailed him for years.

image copyrightReuters

image captionAlexei Navalny posed as a security official in the phone call with an FSB agent

Mr Navalny then, in a phone call, duped an FSB agent named Konstantin Kudryavtsev into revealing details of the operation against him, according to the Bellingcat investigative group.

The agent told him that the Novichok used to poison him was placed in his underpants.

Mr Kudryavtsev said during the phone call he had been sent to Omsk later to seize Mr Navalny’s clothes and remove all traces of Novichok from them.

President Putin has dismissed the investigation by Bellingcat and others into who poisoned Mr Navalny as “a trick” and said that he was backed by US intelligence services.

media captionDoes Putin admit any responsibility for “new Cold War”?

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