Alexei Navalny, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, is in a coma in intensive care in Siberia after allegedly being poisoned.
Mr Navalny fell ill on a flight from Tomsk to Moscow on Thursday and lost consciousness on the aircraft after drinking a cup of tea in the airport, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said.
Shortly after take-off, Mr Navalny began sweating heavily, then collapsed in the plane’s bathroom, she said.
The aircraft made an emergency landing in the nearby city of Omsk, where Mr Navalny was taken to hospital and placed on a respirator. In a video posted by a fellow passenger on Instagram, Mr Navalny can be heard crying out in pain from the toilet as paramedics board the plane.
Local health officials said Mr Navalny was in intensive care and doctors were “performing all necessary tests”.
Mr Navalny, 44, is the face of grassroots opposition to the Kremlin and no stranger to threats for his activism. Last year he claimed he was poisoned with an unknown substance that provoked a severe allergic reaction while serving one of his many short jail sentences for protesting against Mr Putin.
In 2017, a pro-Kremlin activist attacked him with a chemical that left him partially blind in one eye.
Ms Yarmysh said doctors initially told her Mr Navalny was suffering from poisoning with a toxic substance, then stopped providing her with information about his condition and began to “play for time”.
Alexei Kalinichenko, deputy chief doctor of the hospital in Omsk where Mr Navalny was taken, told reporters that “there was no certainty that poisoning is the cause” but said that it was “one of the versions” under consideration.
“We suspect Alexei was poisoned with something mixed into his tea,” Ms Yarmysh said. “It was the only thing he drank all morning. Doctors said that the toxin was absorbed more quickly through hot liquid.”
Russian newswire Interfax cited an “informed source” who claimed that Mr Navalny had been poisoned with an “unknown psychedelic”. Baza, a news channel on messaging app Telegram that boasts of paying doctors and police officers for scoops, claimed that Mr Navalny had been poisoned with GHB, a date rape drug.
Police in Omsk said they would investigate Mr Navalny’s possible poisoning. Ms Yarmysh said several officers appeared to take a statement from doctors treating Mr Navalny and refused to let her be present.
“The doctors have clearly been banned from sharing any information at all. This is yet more confirmation that Alexei was poisoned and they are trying to cover it up,” she said.
State-run news agency Tass cited a law enforcement source who said police were not investigating whether Mr Navalny had been poisoned and “did not exclude that he drank or took something himself”.
S7, the airline Mr Navalny was flying, said Mr Navalny had not eaten or drunk anything while on board the plane. Tomsk’s airport told news agency RIA Novosti it would give police recordings from security cameras.
Mr Navalny claimed in an interview with the Financial Times last year that he and his family were harassed around the clock by men working for a “troll” farm allegedly owned by St Petersburg businessman Evgeny Prigozhin. His younger brother Oleg was jailed for three years in a case Mr Navalny described as “hostage-taking” in retaliation for his activism.
In 2016, assailants stabbed anthropologist Sergei Mokhov, whose wife Lyubov Sobol is one of Mr Navalny’s top aides, in the leg with a poison that caused him to lose consciousness. Police refused to investigate the attack on Mr Mokhov, who filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights.
Two years later, Petr Verzilov, publisher of news site Mediazona and an inspiration for dissident artists Pussy Riot, spent a month in intensive care after an unknown toxin cost him his ability to speak and much of his sight.
Journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza believes he was deliberately poisoned twice in three years with an unknown substance that left him near death.
Doctors were unable to determine what was apparently used to poison the men, while police did not establish any potential suspects.
“For the first few days the doctors were fighting for my life and weren’t sure I’d survive,” Mr Verzilov said on Twitter. “They haven’t even tried to investigate the attempt on my life for two years.”