The main figure of the Russian opposition Alexei Navalny is now on the mend. He left the Berlin hospital after a month of treatment for nerve poisoning in Siberia in August.
Initially, suspicion centered on the cup of tea he drank at Tomsk airport. But it was the quick reaction of a member of his team that convinced German investigators that Agent Novichok had been administered earlier than that.
When he heard that he had fallen into a coma, Maria Pevchikh knew she had to act fast. She rushed to the hotel room he had left that morning.
“It was not a decision to think about – it was obvious and it was the only way to go about this situation,” she told BBC Russian.
Mr Navalny, 44, had returned to Moscow, leaving members of his anti-corruption foundation FBK in the hotel in Tomsk to finish working on a local investigation.
Maria Pevchikh leads her team. They have published numerous detailed reports of corruption and abuse of power at various levels of the Russian political and business establishment.
“Alexei was a healthy man, we had been with him for several days, first in Novosibirsk and then in Tomsk. “
“Healthy people don’t fall into a coma for no reason. We knew something was seriously wrong. And, of course, it’s Russia. To my horror, poisoning here is almost the norm. “
If he had been poisoned, she thought there should be traces.
How the bottles were found
A staff member walked them into the room after Navalny’s team explained what had happened, she said.
“At first they wouldn’t let us in, so we guarded the door to make sure no one else came in first. We literally placed a chair in front of the door and took turns sitting down.
Upon entering the room, they filmed everything as it went, later posting what they saw on Instagram.
“We walked in, we had the good sense to bring rubber gloves, thanks to the coronavirus we still have them with us now. “
Everything the Leader of the Opposition could have touched has been collected.
“We gathered everything he could touch. “
In the video, members of the Navalny team can be seen packing various items, including three plastic water bottles, in blue plastic bags.
The voice of a member of the hotel staff can be heard: “If you take something, you need a police clearance for it,” the manager (of the hotel) told me. “
A Navalny staff member replies, “Unfortunately, we cannot accommodate this request. “
Maria Pevchikh and her colleagues believed that they were unlikely to find anything useful. As for being able to remove what they had collected, smuggle it and hand it over for examination, the hope was “even more microscopic.”
How the evidence left Russia
There are no direct flights between Tomsk and Omsk. Alexei Navalny’s plane only landed in Omsk in an emergency.
“We went to Novosibirsk and flew to Omsk from there,” Ms. Pevchikh said.
Everything they had gathered in the room, including the three water bottles, was “strategically placed” in the team’s luggage, to attract as little attention as possible.
When Russian authorities finally allowed the coma leader of the opposition, her closest family and colleagues to fly from Omsk to Berlin, she was also on that flight.
“If we had not taken these bottles out of Tomsk, they would have disappeared without a trace,” she insists.
This act of taking the bottle out of the hotel room and then taking the long way to Berlin provided significant evidence that he was poisoned before reaching Tomsk airport, she believes. But the bottle was not the source of the poison itself.
All the while, Mr. Navalny was in a coma. German scientists said they had established “unequivocal evidence” that he had been poisoned by a Novichok nerve agent, and their findings were confirmed by laboratories in France and Sweden.
But the Kremlin says tests on samples taken from him in Omsk did not identify any toxic substances in his body. Although Russia does not completely reject the idea that he was poisoned, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Germany must pass information “which has unfortunately so far been denied to us” .
What is not known is how and when Alexei Navalny was poisoned, and if anyone else was at risk of poisoning or contamination.
Bioweapons expert Vladimir Uglev told the BBC earlier that he believed this Novichok case was more targeted than the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in March 2018. While they were attacked by a liquid, the attack on Tomsk was different and therefore less dangerous for the others, he maintains.
While Mr Navalny’s anti-corruption colleagues were careful to use gloves in Tomsk’s hotel room, his press secretary said Novichok’s traces were only found on one of the bottled water and not on other personal effects.
German investigators were denied access to the clothes he was wearing on the day of his collapse, and Mr Navalny called this week when they returned from Russia. Health officials told Tass News Agency that the clothes had been seized by Russian investigators and they no longer knew where they were.
For now, the Kremlin critic must stay in Germany to complete his rehabilitation but intends to return home.
“I hope that one day we will find out how Alexei was poisoned,” says the team leader. “Now we have no idea. And it is not for us to investigate. “