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Kenzhebek Abishev (left) pictured with a law enforcement officer and his lawyer

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- Jailed Kazakh activist Kenzhebek Abishev, who started a hunger strike several days ago protesting the cancellation of his release on parole and prison conditions, was rushed overnight to hospital in a critical condition.

Abishev's lawyer, Gulnar Zhuaspaeva, told RFE/RL on April 15 that an ambulance brought her client to the Qapshaghai City Hospital overnight.

According to her, physicians diagnosed Abishev, who was recognized by human rights groups as a political prisoner, with coronary heart disease.

Zhuaspaeva quoted the hospital’s doctor, Zubaira Sarsenova, as saying that Abishev's current condition had improved to "stable."

An opposition activist, Rysbek Sarsenbaiuly, told RFE/RL that Abishev did not stop his hunger strike, adding that he and other activists urged him via the hospital window to end it to stay alive.

Sarsenbaiuly said he and his colleagues will demand authorities restore the court decision on Abishev's early release on parole.

Abishev, who was jailed for being linked to a political movement founded by a fugitive tycoon, launched the hunger strike on April 11 and wrote an open letter to President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev asking him to intervene in his case.

In his letter, Abishev called the cancellation of the court decision to release him on parole in February and the case against him "illegal," adding that his medical conditions -- heart and respiratory problems -- had worsened due to the lack of proper medical treatment in prison.

There have been no official statements regarding Abishev's hunger strike either by Kazakhstan’s Penitentiary Service or the Prosecutor-General’s Office.

On February 1, the Qapshaghai City Court in Kazakhstan's south ruled that Abishev can be released on February 16, more than three years early, for good behavior while in prison, a procedure allowed by Kazakh laws.

However, the Almaty regional prosecutor’s office appealed the ruling at the very last moment, arguing that the 53-year-old activist's good behavior in custody was not enough for his release since he still has more than three years to serve. The court then scrapped the move, leaving Abishev in prison.

Abishev was sentenced to seven years in prison in December 2018 after he and two other activists were found guilty of planning a "holy war" because they were spreading the ideas of the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement. His prison term was later cut by eight months.

Abishev pleaded not guilty, calling the case against him politically motivated.

The DVK was founded by Mukhtar Ablyazov, an outspoken critic of the Kazakh government who has been residing in France for several years.

Ablyazov has been organizing unsanctioned anti-government rallies in Kazakhstan via the Internet in recent years.

“For me as a priest, it’s not so important what an inmate’s name is or what crime he was convicted of,” said Russian Orthodox priest Aleksei Uminsky. "But what is hugely important for me are the words of Christ."

MOSCOW -- Since his return to Russia and subsequent jailing in January, opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has been the subject of heated debates amid a wave of criminal cases and harassment against those who publicly endorse him.

Students have been expelled and supporters of all stripes subjected to punitive measures for speaking out in favor of the Kremlin critic and his yearslong campaign against authoritarian President Vladimir Putin.

But throughout the clampdown, one institution has largely maintained a guarded silence: the Russian Orthodox Church.

So when Aleksei Uminsky, the head of a parish in east-central Moscow, urged “Christian mercy” for Navalny in a two-minute video posted online, his words prompted a spate of accusations and an unusual public apology that forced the institution to break its silence and exposed a division within it over political issues and proximity to the state.

“For me as a priest, it’s not so important what an inmate’s name is or what crime he was convicted of,” Uminsky says in the video, without specifically endorsing Navalny or his politics. “But what is hugely important for me are the words of Christ, who urges the same attitude toward every person who finds themselves behind bars as toward Christ himself.”

Navalny’s deteriorating health since he was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on February 2 has been a cause célèbre for Russian civil society and many public figures concerned about the scale and severity of the state’s campaign to root out opposition ahead of parliamentary elections expected in September.

It’s also the latest dark turn in Navalny’s monthslong ordeal, which began with his poisoning with a military-grade nerve agent in August, continued with his jailing upon his return from treatment in Germany, and now, his relatives and supporters allege, could reach a grim denouement with a hunger strike that he commenced in early April over inadequate medical care at a notorious prison 100 kilometers east of Moscow.

A still image from CCTV footage shows what is said to be jailed Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny speaking with a prison guard at his prison outside Moscow earlier this month.
A still image from CCTV footage shows what is said to be jailed Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny speaking with a prison guard at his prison outside Moscow earlier this month.

Church leaders, who hold sway over millions of faithful in Russia, have been tight-lipped over the Navalny saga. So heads turned when, within two days of Uminsky’s public plea on April 7, the Russian Orthodox Church’s Spas TV channel aired a lengthy tirade against the priest.

During a one-sided, 90-minute program titled Who Is Dragging The Church Into Politics And Making Martyrs Of Criminals?, Sergei Karnaukhov, a lecturer in politics at a Moscow university, described Uminsky as a “criminal in a cassock” and suggested the priest should be arrested before he “plunges our church into an abyss.” Karnaukhov called for a broader, concerted campaign to discipline priests who undermine Russia’s constitution.

Uminsky, a well-regarded priest who has published extensively on the topic of church teaching and served as a television host in his own right, has long cultivated a reputation as one of the few Russian clergymen who openly sympathizes with the opposition. He has visited Russian prisons to speak with inmates and chaplains and has added his name to initiatives in support of jailed Russian protesters.

In 2019, amid a crackdown following rallies in Moscow that led to prison sentences for participants, Uminsky was one of more than 180 priests who signed an open letter urging the authorities to show leniency and free arrested activists. It was an intervention in politics that church scholars said was unprecedented in Russia since the 1991 Soviet collapse, and it prompted a move by church authorities to discipline some clergymen who endorsed it.

Karnaukhov’s denunciation of Uminsky’s statement was in line with the Kremlin’s long-standing conspiratorial narrative about protests and those who back them. But despite its close ties to the state, the Orthodox Church has often been riven by conflicting views over whether and how to respond to opposition protests and the authorities’ often violent tactics to suppress them. And the stance of Uminsky, a respected clergyman, has only deepened that ambivalence.

“Uminsky has long irritated the most conservative members of the church,” church expert Roman Lunkin told RFE/RL. “But disciplining him would risk alienating other church members, especially young believers who may feel sympathy for Navalny.”

Against this backdrop, Karnaukhov’s public condemnation of Uminsky’s stance -- and especially his calls for criminal charges -- elicited a spat among bodies tied to the Russian Orthodox Church, a generally ultraconservative faith whose head, Patriarch Kirill, has aligned himself publicly with Putin and been accused of, and vehemently denied, engaging in large-scale corruption.

Kicked Out Of Russia For Supporting Navalny
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Orthodoxy And The World, a popular news website focused on church issues, announced it was severing ties with Spas TV until the channel apologizes to Uminsky. Karnaukhov’s words represented the “mockery of a respected priest,” the outlet said. After several other church figures and religious experts criticized the Spas TV program, the channel promised to issue an apology to Uminsky.

The apology, or something close to it, came at the end of a studio discussion on April 12. Golovanov, the Spas TV presenter, stopped short of defending Uminsky, but acknowledged that airing Karnaukhov’s accusations was a mistake. He said the church’s role was to rise above social conflicts and mediate peace between warring parties. He promised his program would return to its original primary focus: church teaching and questions of faith.

"Spas TV, like the church, unites people of all stripes,” Golovanov said. "Sorry to all those who were offended.”

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