Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny claims prison officials are not allowing him to study the main religious text of Islam.
(CN) — Two weeks into a hunger strike and at the beginning of a nearly three-year prison sentence, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Tuesday opened a new front in his legal fight against the Russian state by charging prison officials are unjustly keeping him from reading the Quran.
In an Instagram post, Navalny said he decided to sue the IK-2 penal colony where he is imprisoned because he has been denied access to books and that he was particularly incensed at delays to give him a Quran to study.
Since his arrest on politically motivated charges in mid-January, Navalny has stepped up his criticisms of Russian President Vladimir Putin and continued to wage battle against the Russian state from behind bars. He said this was his first lawsuit over his prison conditions.
His imprisonment is adding more tension to an escalating conflict between Putin and the new Biden administration in the United States. The alleged poisoning of Navalny last August on the orders of the Kremlin has brought relations between the U.S. and its allies in Europe to a new low. As Putin’s fiercest critic and challenger, Navalny’s imprisonment contributes to brewing military tensions over eastern Ukraine and demands that Germany stop a new Russian gas line, the Nord Stream 2, from being constructed.
In recent weeks, Navalny has complained of health problems inside the IK-2 prison, which he labels a “concentration camp.” He charges that inmates he is housed with are suffering from tuberculosis and that he has been refused medical attention. Two weeks ago, he announced he was going on hunger strike because he had not been allowed to see a physician for severe back and leg pains. His supporters say he has lost about 33 pounds since he arrived at the prison. Last week he was transferred temporarily to the prison’s medical ward after he developed a cough and fever.
In his social media post on Tuesday, he noted with irony that his first lawsuit against the prison related to the Quran and not to the conditions in the prison.
“Who would have thought that the first time I would sue my penal colony would be because of the Quran?” Navalny said. “Yes. Not because of the refusal to admit the doctor (the reason for my hunger strike), not because of the conditions of detention, but because of the Holy Book of Muslims.”
There is a political element to his new legal challenge. Early in his political career some 15 years ago, Navalny, a Christian, spoke out against Muslim immigrants in Russia and he appeared at events connected to the far right. In one video, he made comments that appeared to compare immigrants to cockroaches.
His critics point to his past xenophobic comments as evidence that he is not the pro-democratic politician that he is portrayed to be by the Western media. Among Russia’s ruling elite, Navalny is blasted as an American-sponsored provocateur seeking to undermine Putin’s regime. Navalny has built up a large following through years of anti-corruption investigations and courageous outspokenness of Putin and his cronies.
Still, his past xenophobic comments trail the 44-year-old opposition figure. In February, after he was imprisoned upon his return to Russia, Amnesty International stripped Navalny of his “prisoner of conscience” status due to those comments.
On Tuesday, Navalny said he had decided to study the Quran more in-depth to better himself and become, in his words, both a better Christian but also “the champion of the Quran from among Russian non-Muslim politicians.”
“The point is that they don’t give me my Koran. And it pisses me off,” he wrote.
He said he wanted to learn the Quran by heart but that the prison is refusing to allow him access to books. He said the prison told him the books he has ordered “must be checked for extremism” and that it takes three months to do that.
“Books are our everything, and if you have to sue for the right to read, I will sue,” Navalny said.
The IK-2 penal colony is in the Vladimir region about 53 miles east of Moscow. It is known for its harsh treatment of inmates.
After returning to Moscow following treatment in Germany for poisoning with a Soviet-era nerve agent, Navalny was arrested and ordered to serve two years and eight months in prison over alleged parole violations.
While undergoing treatment in Germany, Navalny missed parole hearings in connection with a suspended 3 ½ sentence for a 2014 embezzlement conviction and he was convicted for violating the terms of his parole. But the embezzlement case against Navalny and his brother, Oleg, was deemed politically motivated and in 2017 the European Court of Human Rights found the trial against them was unfair.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.