When Alexei Navalny’s lawyer arrived for a routine prison visit on 14 June, he was told to wait outside. Several hours later, the prison authorities told him to go home. “There is no such convict here,” they said. Navalny’s supporters launched a frantic search, hoping that he had been transferred to a new prison, but also warning that his life could be in imminent danger.
“We do not know where Alexei is now and what colony they are taking him to,” wrote his press secretary Kira Yarmysh on Twitter. “As long as we don’t know where Alexei is, he remains one-on-one with the system that has already tried to kill him.”
That evening, Sergei Yazhan, the chairman of the regional prison monitoring commission, told the RIA Novosti news agency that Navalny had been transferred to the notorious IK-6 maximum-security prison in Melekhovo, around 250 kilometres east of Moscow. His legal team was allowed to see him the following day, on 15 June, when they posted a message they said was from him on his Instagram account.
“My journey continues – I moved from ship to ship,” he said. “That is, hello everyone from the high-security prison. Yesterday I was transferred to IK-6 ‘Melekhovo’.” That knowledge has done little to reassure his associates that he is safe.
The 45-year-old rose to prominence as an anti-corruption activist, emerging as one of the key leaders of the massive anti-government protests that gripped Russia in the winter of 2011-12. He has campaigned strenuously against President Vladimir Putin in the decade since, deriding him as a “liar” and a “thief”, and publishing embarrassing allegations about his personal wealth.
He narrowly survived being poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok in August 2020. The plane he was travelling on made an emergency landing after he collapsed in agony, forcing him to be rushed to hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk, before being airlifted to Germany for treatment. Despite the clear threat to his life, he returned to Russia five months later in January 2021, with his wife Yulia by his side, where he was arrested at the airport in Moscow.
He was swiftly found guilty of violating the terms of his parole for an earlier fraud conviction (that his supporters and the European Court of Human Rights say was arbitrary and “manifestly unreasonable”) and sentenced to two and a half years in prison in February 2021. But the authorities seem determined to keep him behind bars for much longer. He was convicted on new fraud charges in March 2022, this time accused of stealing from his own anti-corruption foundation, in a clear attempt to discredit him. Navalny was sentenced to nine years in a maximum-security prison.
When Navalny’s team found out in May that he would likely serve his sentence in the Melekhovo prison, they immediately warned of its grim reputation and their fears for his safety. “Abuse and torture are used against inmates in many Russian prisons,” said Yarmysh, “but IK-6 in Melekhovo is a monstrous place even by such insane standards.” She detailed allegations of systemic abuse against inmates including beatings, torture and rape.
In one case, a former prisoner described in 2016 how he said he was pinned down by six men and raped with a baton. In 2018, the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta concluded that an inmate whose family was told he had succumbed to pneumonia, had likely died from violence at the hands of prison guards instead. When his family received his body, they found that his fingers and toes were broken, and that he had extensive bruising and stun gun marks, along with mutilated genitals.
Asked to comment on the decision to move Navalny to Melekhovo, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the “Kremlin does not follow inmates’ transfers”. At a minimum, the move to the maximum-security facility means that Navalny will be allowed fewer visits and that it will be harder for his colleagues and family to monitor his condition. And there is no end in sight to his ordeal. Last month, he revealed that he was facing new charges of inciting “extremism” that could add another 15 years to his sentence. There are few who expect him to be acquitted.
Still, Navalny refuses to be silenced. In his last court appearance in late May, he called Putin a “madman” for starting “the stupid war” against Ukraine and denounced the president and his senior officials as “enemies, traitors and murderers” of the Russian people. “Your time will pass,” he said. “And when you all burn in hell, your grandfathers, who did not want you to start new wars in the 21st century, will throw in firewood.” He is defiant, even as he faces the grave dangers that lie ahead.
[See also: Is Vladimir Putin dead?]