By Mark Trevelyan
LONDON (Reuters) -Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny has been removed from the penal colony where he had been imprisoned since the middle of last year and his current whereabouts are not known, his allies said on Monday.
Navalny aides have been preparing for his expected transfer to a “special regime” colony, the harshest grade in Russia’s prison system, after he was sentenced in August to an additional 19 years in prison on top of 11-1/2 years he was already serving.
Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said staff at the IK-6 facility in Melekhovo, 235 km (145 miles) east of Moscow, had told his lawyer waiting outside that the opposition leader was no longer among its inmates.
“Where they have taken him, they refuse to say,” she said on social media platform X.
His disappearance comes at the start of the campaign period for a presidential election in which Vladimir Putin confirmed on Friday that he would stand for another six-year term.
Navalny aide Leonid Volkov posted on X that the timing was “0% coincidence and 100% direct manual political control from the Kremlin.”
He added: “It is no secret to Putin who his main opponent is in these ‘elections’. And he wants to make sure that Navalny’s voice is not heard.”
There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin. Putin and his spokesman make a point of never referring to Navalny by name in an attempt to portray him as politically irrelevant. They say he is treated like any other prisoner.
The process of transferring prisoners by rail across Russia’s vast territory can take weeks, with relatives and family unable to obtain information about their whereabouts and well-being until they reach their destination.
Despite his incarceration, Navalny has often been able through his lawyers to post trenchant attacks on the Kremlin via social media, describing his ordeal behind bars and condemning Putin over the war in Ukraine. But his isolation deepened when three of his lawyers were arrested in October on suspicion of “extremist” activity.
The 47-year-old is by far the best known figure in Russia’s opposition. For years, he has branded Putin and the ruling elite a gang of “crooks and thieves”, lampooning them in slick videos watched millions of times on YouTube.
He earned admiration around the world for voluntarily returning to Russia in 2021 from Germany, where he underwent treatment for what Western laboratory tests showed was an attempt to poison him with a nerve agent in Siberia. He was immediately arrested on arrival.
Navalny says the many charges against him – from fraud and contempt of court to a range of “extremist” activities – were all trumped up to silence his attacks on Putin.
Russian authorities view Navalny and his supporters as extremists with links to Western intelligence agencies intent on trying to destabilise Russia. Putin has warned the West that any meddling inside Russia will be considered an act of aggression.
(Reporting by Mark TrevelyanEditing by Gareth Jones and Angus MacSwan)