U.S. disturbed over imprisoned Kremlin critic Navalny's deteriorating health

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A still image taken from video footage shows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is accused of flouting the terms of a suspended sentence for embezzlement, during the announcement of a court verdict in Moscow, Russia February 2, 2021.

Simonovsky District Court | via Reuters

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said Wednesday that it is disturbed by reports that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's health has deteriorated since his imprisonment and reiterated calls for his immediate release.

Navalny, who was detained in January at an airport in Moscow, is on a hunger strike in order to force his jailers to provide access to outside medical care for pain in his back and legs. A lawyer for Navalny said he is suffering from two spinal hernias, AP reported.

The Kremlin has declined to comment on his health.

"We urge Russian authorities to take all necessary actions to ensure his safety and health. So long as he is imprisoned, the Russian government is responsible for his health and well-being," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday during a briefing.

"We stand with like-minded allies and partners in calling for his immediate release as well as an end to the persecution of his supporters," she said, adding that Navalny's imprisonment was "politically motivated" and a "gross injustice."

Human rights group Amnesty International told Reuters on Wednesday that it believed Russian authorities were attempting to slowly kill Navalny during his imprisonment.

Navalny, a leading critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, flew to Russia in January from Berlin, where he spent nearly half a year recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that took place in August. He was arrested at passport control and later sentenced to more than two years in prison.

Last summer, Navalny was medically evacuated to Germany from a Russian hospital after he became ill following reports that something was added to his tea. Russian doctors treating Navalny denied that the Kremlin critic had been poisoned and blamed his comatose state on low blood sugar levels.

In September, the German government said that the 44-year-old Russian dissident was poisoned by a chemical nerve agent, describing the toxicology report as providing "unequivocal evidence." The military-grade nerve agent was in the family of Novichok, which was developed by the Soviet Union. Toxicology tests conducted in France and Sweden came to the same conclusion.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied having a role in Navalny's poisoning.

Last month, the United States sanctioned seven members of the Russian government for the alleged poisoning and subsequent detention of Navalny. The sanctions are the first to target Moscow under President Joe Biden's leadership. The Trump administration did not take action against Russia over the Navalny situation.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote in a separate statement that the sanctions would "send a clear signal" to Russia that use of chemical weapons and human rights abuses carry hefty consequences.

"Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and contravenes international norms," Blinken wrote.