Russian dissident under police protection after attack
Russian dissident activist Pyotr Verzilov and those close to him are under around-the-clock protection by German police while he receives treatment for a suspected poisoning, his former wife says.
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a member of the punk art collective Pussy Riot who has a child with Verzilov, said in an interview with Current Time TV that police in Berlin implemented the security measures after a friend of the activist reported being followed by unidentified men.
"They sleep in the same building as police, and if they go somewhere, then it's only in a police minivan," Tolokonnikova told Current Time TV, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, on Sept. 25, 2018.
Verzilov, 30, fell ill in Moscow on Sept. 11, 2018, with symptoms that his friends say included diminished eyesight and an inability to speak or move.
After his initial treatment in the Russian capital, he was transferred to the Charite hospital in Berlin, where a doctor told a news conference that "it was highly plausible that it was a case of poisoning."
Tolokonnikova, who returned to Moscow on Sept. 23, 2018, after visiting Verzilov at the Berlin hospital, said the German police protection came after Verzilov's friend, Hunter Heaney, noticed unidentified men following him in Berlin on two separate occasions.
Those incidents on Sept. 22 and 23, 2018, respectively, came after reports by Kremlin-friendly Russian media outlets featuring images of Tolokonnikova that appear to have been taken surreptitiously while she was shopping for clothes in Berlin.
Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova speaks with Current Time TV: "Most likely this operation was not carried out by idiots, but rather with relative sophistication."
The reports by the REN-TV network downplayed Verzilov's illness and suggested Tolokonnikova was more interested in shopping that in Verzilov's treatment.
"We don't know who it was. I didn't see anyone. There is speculation that it could have been officers of Russian security services or people affiliated with them who then leaked the photographs of us to the REN-TV network," Tolokonnikova said, adding that she was buying underwear for Verzilov at the time the images were taken.
Heaney, a friend of Verzilov who has visited the activist in the hospital, told RFE/RL that he noticed two men watching the front door of his apartment in central Berlin on Sept. 22, 2018.
The following day, he saw one of those men in the passenger seat of a red compact car "that pulled out on a deserted street I had just walked down and doubled back...to come in my direction and sped off as I looked closely in the windows," Heaney said in an e-mail.
Heaney, who said he provided information about the car to police, confirmed that he and others close to Verzilov are now under constant police protection.
A spokesman for Berlin police told Reuters that they were in touch with Verzilov and those with him but declined to comment on possible security measures "in detail."
'Like being in a black hole'
Verzilov on Sept. 25, 2018, posted his first lengthy tweet since he fell ill, writing: "I've been relatively conscious now only for the past three days, and before that it was like being in a black hole."
"I am spending my days in the friendly company of wonderful poisons. But not polonium-210 or Novichok, but something new and surprising," he added.
Novichok is the Soviet-developed toxin that British authorities say Russian operatives deployed in the March 2018 poisoning of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in southern England. Radioactive polonium-210 caused the 2006 death of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko in London.
Another doctor at the Charite hospital, Karl Max Einhaeupl, said that there was so far no other explanation for Verzilov's condition other than poisoning and that there was no evidence that the activist was suffering from a long-term illness.
He added that the symptoms indicate a disruption of the part of Verzilov's nervous system that regulates the internal organs, but that the substance responsible for the poisoning hasn't been yet determined.
Tolokonnikova said it remains unclear precisely how or when Verzilov might have been poisoned and that his associates did not notice anything suspicious before he fell ill.
"That tells us that most likely this operation was not carried out by idiots, but rather with relative sophistication," she told Current Time.
Tolokonnikova said she believes Verzilov's alleged poisoning may be linked to an investigation he was working on into the the killing of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) in July 2018.
Russian journalists Orkhan Dzhemal, Aleksandr Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko were killed on July 30, 2018, in the C.A.R., where they were working on a documentary about the possible activities there of a shadowy Russian paramilitary group with alleged Kremlin ties.
Tolokonnikova said that the day before he fell ill, Verzilov, publisher of the Russian news outlet Mediazona, received a report from an associate in the C.A.R. investigating the killings.
"As far as I know, [Verzilov] is interested in pursuing this investigation further, because the current report is far from finished," she said.
This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.