Kremlin critic Navalny vows to return to Russia on Sunday

Moscow (AFP) –


Opposition leader Alexei Navalny said on Wednesday he plans to return to Russia on Sunday from Germany, where he has been recovering from a poisoning attack, despite facing a threat of jail.

The 44-year-old Kremlin critic wrote on Instagram that he had booked a flight that will arrive in Moscow on January 17.

"There was never any question of 'returning or not' for me. Simply because I didn't leave. I ended up in Germany... for one reason: they tried to kill me," the anti-graft campaigner wrote on Instagram.

Navalny has been in Germany since late August after he fell violently ill on a flight from Siberia to Moscow and was hospitalised in the city of Omsk. He was then flown out to Berlin in an induced coma.

Western experts concluded that Navalny was poisoned using the Soviet-designed nerve agent Novichok, the same chemical said to be used in the attempted murder of former spy Sergei Skripal in the English town of Salisbury in 2018.

Navalny insists the attack was carried out by Russia's main security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), on the orders of President Vladimir Putin.

"I survived. And now Putin, who gave the order for my murder, is... telling his servants to do everything so that I do not return," Navalny added.

The Kremlin denies any involvement in the poisoning, but the European Union has imposed entry bans and bank account freezes on several officials, including the head of the FSB.

Russia in turn introduced tit-for-tat sanctions on EU officials, further increasing tensions between Moscow and its Western neighbours.

Speaking at his annual marathon press conference last month, Putin said that if Russia's special services had wanted to poison Navalny "they would have taken it to the end".

- Threat of jail time -

"Something tells me it will be packed in Vnukovo on Sunday," Navalny ally Georgy Alburov said on Twitter on Wednesday, posting a screenshot of a Pobeda airlines flight arriving to Moscow's Vnukovo airport on Sunday at 7:20 pm local time (1620 GMT).

Navalny and his allies have accused the Kremlin of trying to block his return to Russia by threatening him with jail.

On Monday, papers were filed with a Moscow court asking for a 2014 suspended sentence Navalny received to be converted into jail time.

"What else can they come up with so that Navalny doesn't return to Russia," his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh asked on Twitter on Tuesday.

Russia's prison authorities have accused Navalny of breaking the terms of his probation by remaining abroad after he was discharged from hospital in Berlin in September.

In December, Russian investigators also launched a criminal probe into Navalny's alleged use of more than $4 million of donations to his organisations for personal purposes.

Russian authorities have not launched a criminal probe into the poisoning, citing a lack of evidence.

Late last year, investigative website Bellingcat together with several publications published a joint report saying chemical weapons experts followed Navalny for years, including on the day of his poisoning.

Using phone logs and flight records, the report revealed the names and photos of these men, although they did not establish any direct contact between them and Navalny.

The video has since garnered over 22 million views on YouTube, while Russia denied the FSB's role in the events.