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Pyotr Verzilov gestures to supporters while making an appearance in court in Moscow in July. (file photo)

Relatives of Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the Russian dissident art troupe Voina and an unofficial spokesman for the Pussy Riot protest group, say he has regained consciousness but remains in hospital following a suspected poisoning.

The Meduza website on September 14 quoted Verzilov's partner, Veronika Nikulshina, as saying he was no longer in intensive care.

"Petya has regained consciousness. He already recognizes me and my mother," she was quoted as saying.

Verzilov, founder of the Mediazona website, which reports on trials of Russian activists, is being treated in the toxicology section of Moscow's Bakhrushin City Clinical Hospital.

Earlier this year, Verzilov, who is also a Canadian citizen, was sentenced along with Pussy Riot members to 15 days in jail for briefly interrupting the July 15 World Cup final in Moscow between France and Croatia by running onto the field wearing fake police uniforms.

Verzilov became known as a member of the dissident art group Voina (War) in the late 2000s.

He performed with this then-wife, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who went on to form punk protest band Pussy Riot with Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich.

Pussy Riot members came to prominence after they were convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for a stunt in which they burst into Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral and sang a "punk prayer" against Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister and campaigning for his return to the presidency at the time.

Alyokhina and bandmate Tolokonnikova were close to the end of their two-year prison sentences when they were freed in December 2013, under an amnesty they dismissed as a propaganda stunt to improve Putin's image ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova founded Mediazona in 2014, with Verzilov becoming publisher.

With reporting by Meduza, Mediazona, and AFP
Kyrgyzstan's Health Ministry has established a working group to investigate the case and look into the operations of all of the country's maternity hospitals. (illustrative photo)

BISHKEK -- Kyrgyz authorities have detained several individuals over the sale of newborn babies, including one case in which hospital staff falsely told parents that their child had died at birth.

A criminal investigation was opened on September 11 against several employees of a maternity hospital in the capital -- the fifth case so far this year involving the attempted sale of children in Kyrgyzstan.

Reports say doctors at the unnamed facility told the parents shortly after the baby's birth that it had died, before attempting to sell it.

Raisa Asylbasheva, head of the Kyrgyz Health Ministry's OB/GYN department, told RFE/RL that the ministry has established a working group to investigate the incident and look into operations at all of the country's maternity hospitals.

"There are 1,060 gynecologists and midwives in Kyrgyzstan, and we can't follow what everyone does," Asylbasheva said, before urging the public to come forward if they have witnessed or heard about illegal activities.

"We have to fight against these societal ills together," she added.

Some people point to pay levels for state health-care workers in a country where the average salary is about 14,000 soms (about $220) per month.

"Perhaps [doctors and other medical workers] do this out of need," said Ainura Altybaeva, a parliament deputy. "Whatever it is, that by no means justifies their criminal actions."

Human rights activist Avazkhan Ormonova cited several factors behind the trafficking of small children in Kyrgyzstan, including complicated adoption procedures.

"Women who are not officially married or who become pregnant after being raped often try to sell their babies, as do those who...give birth after already having several children," she said.

In 2015, a 26-year-old man in the northwestern Naryn region was detained for trying to exchange his 5-month-old daughter for a goat.

Last year, three women were detained in Bishkek for allegedly arranging the sale of a 3-month-old baby for 10,000 soms (about $150).

Earlier this year, a woman in the Chui region, outside the capital, was detained by police after reportedly trying to sell her three children for 80,000 soms ($1,150).

The cases of illegal trafficking in babies comes amid a boom in "fertility tourism" in Kyrgyzstan, which boasts six fertility clinics serving Kyrgyz and hundreds of foreign patients each year for in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and other procedures.

Critics point out that many of those detained and arrested for trying to sell children go unprosecuted.

"If we want to prevent the [sale of children] from happening, it is necessary to improve the laws and tighten the punishment for such crimes," said activist Ormonova.

Written by Pete Baumgartner based on reporting by RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service correspondent Ernist Nurmatov.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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