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On Poisoning Anniversary, Merkel Urges Putin To Release Navalny, Britain Sanctions More Russians

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands after their joint news conference following talks in the Kremlin in January 2020.

On the anniversary of Aleksei Navalny’s poisoning, Britain and the United States imposed targeted sanctions on Russian intelligence operatives as German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to release the jailed opposition politician.

Navalny, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, fell violently ill one year ago while on a passenger flight in Siberia, forcing the plane into making an emergency landing where he was rushed to hospital.

Days later, Navalny was airlifted to a clinic in Berlin where doctors battled to save his life. It was later determined by several laboratories that he had been poisoned with a Soviet-style nerve agent.

The U.S. State Department said on August 20 the United States in coordination with Britain imposed fresh sanctions targeting those involved in the poisoning of Navalny or Russia's chemical weapons program.

"Our actions today -- exercised by the U.S. Departments of State, the Treasury, Justice and Commerce -- send a clear signal that there will be no impunity for the use of chemical weapons, including for the individuals and organizations involved. Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and contravenes international norms," the State Department statement said.

The Treasury website said the sanctions target nine Russian individuals and two Russian entities.

The nine individuals include: Vladimir Bogdanov, chief of the FSB’s Special Technology Center; Aleksei Sedov, chief of the FSB’s Service for the Protection of the Constitutional System and the Fight against Terrorism (also referred to as the FSB’s 2nd Service); chemical weapons specialists Artur Zhirov and Kirill Vasiliev; FSB operatives Stanislav Makshakov, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, Aleksei Alexandrov, Ivan Osipov, and Vladimir Panyaev. The two sanctioned entities are the State Institute for Experimental Military Medicine (GNII VM) -- a scientific research organization specializing in security and defense -- and the FSB Criminalistics Institute -- a sub-unit of the FSB originally founded under the KGB.

Earlier on August 20, Britain's Foreign Office said it had imposed sanctions on seven individuals it said were Russian intelligence operatives suspected of involvement in the “attempted assassination.” Their names were added to Britain's sanctions list, subjecting them to asset freezes.

The newly sanctioned alleged FSB operatives included Aleksei Aleksandrov, Vladimir Panyaev, Ivan Osipov, Vladimir Bogdanov, Kirill Vasilyev, Stanislav Makshakov, and Aleksei Sedov.

The anniversary falls on the day German Chancellor Angela Merkel is visiting Moscow for talks with Putin.

Upon his return from Germany in January, Navalny, who has blamed Putin for the attack, was jailed for parole violations on what he says were politically motivated charges. The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the poisoning.

Russian-German Ties

The anniversary of the incident, which severely strained Russian-German ties, coincided with Merkel's visit to Moscow for talks with Putin.

"I demanded from the Russian President that he free Navalny," Merkel said at a press conference after the meeting in the Kremlin.

Putin countered with a reply frequently used by Russian authorities, saying that the opposition figure had not been imprisoned for his political activity.

Russia's lack of action in the poisoning case also drew criticism on August 20 from Amnesty International, which slammed Moscow's "utter disregard for justice" for its failure to investigate the poisoning.

"One year ago today, the Kremlin’s most vocal critic was attacked with a banned chemical weapon, an outrageous crime which should have been the subject of an urgent investigation by Russian authorities. Instead, the Russian government chose to throw Aleksei Navalny behind bars on false grounds -- in conditions which almost killed him -- and to pursue a relentless campaign of reprisals against his supporters,” Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, said in a statement on August 20.

Since the poisoning, Navalny and his associates have uncovered what they say is evidence of the involvement of federal intelligence agents in the attack, while authorities have rejected any implication of official involvement.

The government has also embarked on a sometimes violent crackdown on dissent, rounding up many of Navalny's associates and other opposition figures, and detaining thousands who rallied in his support.

Putin has also moved to end the activities of Navalny’s political organizations, including his Anti-Corruption Foundation, which for years has exposed alleged corruption among top officials and business elite.

“The Russian authorities’ failure to investigate the attempt on Navalny’s life is damning proof of their utter disregard for justice and for the right to life. We reiterate our call for an immediate and impartial investigation into the attempted poisoning of Aleksei Navalny, and for an end to the persecution of Navalny and his supporters," Callamard said.

“We reiterate our call for an immediate and impartial investigation into the attempted poisoning of Aleksei Navalny, and for an end to the persecution of Navalny and his supporters," Amnesty's statement said.

On the eve of the anniversary of his poisoning, Navalny issued an open letter published in Western newspapers, calling on Western countries to challenge authoritarian leaders, including Putin, on corruption.

The Kremlin critic said Western leaders should show “determination and political will” to fight corruption as he outlined five steps that are “entirely realistic.”

In a related development, Russian communications watchdog Roskomnadzor on August 20 demanded that Alphabet's Google and Apple remove Navalny's app from their stores.

Roskomnadzor cited a Russian court ruling that found Navalny's anti-corruption foundation an extremist organization and banned it. Navalny's allies have published news and blogs through the app after Roskomnadzor blocked their websites.

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