MOSCOW – Russian authorities said Thursday they have found no indication so far that opposition leader Alexei Navalny's coma, which his allies and German doctors treating him believe may have been brought about by poisoning, was caused by a criminal act.
A preliminary inquiry launched last week hasn't found any indication of "deliberate criminal acts committed against” Navalny, Russia's Prosecutor General's office said. The statement comes amid growing pressure from the West to investigate the sudden illness of the Kremlin's fiercest critic and Russian authorities' apparent reluctance to do so.
Navalny, an opposition politician and corruption investigator who is a longtime foe of President Vladimir Putin, fell ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on Aug. 20 and was taken to a hospital in the Siberian city of Omsk after the plane made an emergency landing.
Over the weekend, he was transferred to the Charité hospital in Berlin, where doctors found indications of “cholinesterase inhibitors” in his system. They are yet to identify a specific substance.
Found in some drugs, pesticides and chemical nerve agents, cholinesterase inhibitors block the breakdown of a key chemical in the body, acetycholine, which transmits signals between nerve cells.
Navalny's allies insist he was deliberately poisoned and say the Kremlin was behind it, accusations that Russian officials rejected as “empty noise.”
The Russian doctors who treated Navalny in Siberia have repeatedly contested the German hospital’s conclusion, saying they had ruled out poisoning as a diagnosis and that their tests for cholinesterase inhibitors came back negative.
The politician's team submitted a request last week to Russia's Investigative Committee, demanding authorities launch a criminal probe on charges of an attempt on the life of a public figure and attempted murder, but said there was no reaction.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday he saw no grounds for a criminal case until the cause of the politician’s condition was fully established.
On Thursday, Russian police said they have been conducting a preliminary probe — an inquiry to determine whether a criminal investigation should be launched — to “establish all the circumstances of the incident.”
The announcement about the inquiry came after multiple Western and European officials — including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — called upon Russia to start a full and transparent investigation into Navalny's condition.
On Wednesday night, the politician's illness was discussed in a phone call between Putin and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
According to the Kremlin's readout, Putin said the “premature and unfounded accusations” were unacceptable and underscored Russia's “interest in a thorough and objective investigation of all the circumstances of the incident.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Thursday once again urged Moscow to investigate Navalny's condition.
“We still expect of Moscow that a contribution be made from there to things being cleared up,” Maas said in Berlin ahead of a meeting with his European Union counterparts.
"Otherwise, conjecture and speculation will remain that certainly won’t improve relations between Germany and Russia, and also relations between the EU and Russia, but will continue to weigh on them,” he said.
Peskov on Thursday refused to comment on Maas' statement and reiterated there were no grounds for a criminal investigation.
“Nothing has changed in that regard. We still, unfortunately, don't understand what caused the condition the patient is in,” Peskov told reporters.
He added that the inquiry announced by the Interior Ministry had started “in the first days” after Navalny fell ill and is routine police work “always carried out in cases like this.”
The Prosecutor General's office, in the meantime, said they reached out to Germany with a request to share their findings and clinical evidence of the alleged poisoning, adding that German law enforcement confirmed their “intention to cooperate.”
Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.