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Russian Police Probe Radical Pro-Kremlin Group Over Navalny Attack


Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny appears with one eye covered on YouTube.
Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny appears with one eye covered on YouTube.

The leader of a radical pro-Kremlin group says police plan to question him and his colleagues over an attack on Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny that has impaired his eyesight.

Igor Beketov, leader of a group calling itself the South East Radical Block (SERB), told RFE/RL on May 5 that Moscow police contacted him "a few days ago" concerning the April 27 attack in which Navalny's face was splashed with a green antiseptic.

"They said that we'd be called in for questioning," Beketov, an actor who goes by the nom de guerre Gosha Tarasevich, said in a conversation via the popular Russian social-networking site VKontakte.

The attack on Navalny comes amid his push to run in next year's presidential election, which is expected to hand President Vladimir Putin another six-year term.

Russian opposition activists have repeatedly faced similar attacks with the antiseptic, known as "zelyonka," and other substances in recent years with few repercussions for the assailants.

The attack on Navalny, however, has drawn wide attention in Russia and triggered denunciations -- including from officials loyal to the Kremlin -- after Navalny said he had suffered potentially permanent eye damage due to the incident.

Amid mounting pressure, Moscow city prosecutors said on the evening of May 4 that a criminal battery investigation had been launched on April 29, two days after the attack.

The case is being investigated by city police investigators, said Yelena Rossokhina, a spokeswoman for Moscow prosecutors.

At least one SERB member, Aleksei Kulakov, was caught on video appearing to film the April 27 attack on Navalny, in which an unidentified man runs up to the presidential hopeful and tosses zelyonka into his face.

The Russian newspaper RBK, which first reported that police had contacted SERB members about the attack, quoted Kulakov as saying late on May 4 that a "police probe is being conducted into specific people," including himself.

Kulakov has admitted to being at the scene, though he and Beketov have denied that SERB was involved.

Navalny and his supporters accuse another SERB activist, Aleksandr Petrunko, of tossing the liquid in his face, though Beketov has said that Petrunko has an alibi. A video of the attack published by the Kremlin-friendly network REN-TV blurs the assailant's face as he runs toward the camera.

Beketov told RFE/RL that he believes police contacted Petrunko as well but that he could not confirm that this was the case. He declined to comment further, saying he did not want to "harm the investigation."

A lawyer for Navalny, Ivan Zhdanov, said neither his client nor the lawyers had been officially notified about the probe yet.

Navalny has accused Putin's administration and Russian security services of complicity in the attack and demanded that authorities prosecute the assailant.

He said his doctors believe the antiseptic was mixed with another substance that caused a chemical burn to his right eye that has left him partially blinded.

On May 4, Navalny said he obtained his passport after five years of refusal by the Federal Migration Service, and expressed hope that he might now travel abroad to treat the damaged eye.

However, his lawyer said Russian correctional authorities then warned him not to leave the country.

Navalny has been convicted three times of financial crimes at trials that he contends were baseless, politically motivated reprisals for his opposition activity. He is serving two suspended sentences, which requires him to visit the corrections office twice a month.

Another lawyer for Navalny, Vadim Kobzev, said Russian law allowed him to travel outside the country for medical purposes as long as he provides a written explanation to authorities ahead of time.

With reporting by RBK, Interfax, TASS, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, and The Moscow Times
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.