World

Alexei Navalny is in a serious condition in a Berlin hospital. The Trump family dominates Republican convention week. Christchurch terrorist sentenced to life without parole. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Putin critic in coma after likely poisoning

Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, pictured at a Moscow march in February.
Credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP

Great power rivalry

United States: On Monday, Donald Trump made a surprise appearance during the first day of the Republican Party’s national convention, appearing on stage in North Carolina to personally thank his supporters.

“The only way they can take this election away from us is if this is a rigged election,” he told them.

Presidential candidates typically appear only on the last day of their party’s conventions to accept their nomination. By the end of the first day, Trump had made three appearances.

Trump and his family appeared regularly throughout the four-day convention. George W. Bush, the only living former Republican president, did not appear.

The main theme of the convention was that the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, is an extremist and a captive of his party’s “radical left”. He was accused of planning to dismantle law enforcement and to “abolish the suburbs” by rezoning to eliminate family homes.

“Biden is basically the Loch Ness monster of the swamp,” said Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr. “For the past half-century, he’s been lurking around in there.”

The convention was based in North Carolina but speeches were largely delivered virtually. On the first night, 17 million people watched the event on television, compared with about 20 million viewers during the first night of last week’s Democratic convention. Both audiences were substantially smaller than in 2016.

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: On Tuesday, at a court in Christchurch, Angela Armstrong was given an opportunity to address Brenton Tarrant, a white supremacist who shot her mother at a mosque in the city last year. “You are nothing,” she told him.

Armstrong’s mother, 65-year-old Linda Armstrong, was one of 51 people killed during a shooting spree at two mosques in Christchurch by Tarrant, an Australian now aged 29.

During sentencing hearings at the country’s High Court this week, dozens of survivors and family members of victims addressed Tarrant as they delivered impact statements and tried to describe their loss.

Maysoon Salama, whose son Ata was killed, told Tarrant: “I can’t forgive you … You thought you could break us, you failed miserably.”

Ambreen Naeem, a 45-year-old whose husband Naeem Rashid and son Talha Naeem were killed in the attacks, said in a statement read by a support officer: “Since my husband and son passed away I have never had a proper normal sleep. I don’t think I ever will.”

Tarrant, who was handcuffed and wore grey prison clothes, reportedly looked directly at those delivering statements but showed little emotion. In March, he pleaded guilty to 51 counts of murder, 40 of attempted murder and one charge of engaging in a terrorist act.

The prosecutor said Tarrant spent years planning and preparing for the attacks, which he conducted during prayers on March 15 last year.

On Thursday, Tarrant was sentenced to life without parole, a sentence that has never previously been used in New Zealand. “You showed no mercy. It was brutal and beyond callous – your actions were inhumane,” Justice Cameron Mander told Tarrant.

Democracy in retreat

Russia: Alexei Navalny, a Russian anti-corruption campaigner, has emerged in recent years as one of the most prominent critics of Vladimir Putin, who avoids saying his name. An activist, journalist and former lawyer, Navalny has been repeatedly arrested and detained but remained in Russia to try to combat the country’s high concentration of power and wealth. He has described Russia as a “feudal state” and Putin’s United Russia party as the “party of crooks and thieves”.

This week, Navalny, who is 44 years old, was in a coma in a hospital in Germany after being airlifted from Siberia, where he was allegedly poisoned. His supporters believe a substance was inserted into a cup of black tea that he drank at an airport cafe in Tomsk, a Siberian city he had visited to support local independent political candidates. On the flight back to Moscow, he fell ill and was heard groaning before he collapsed in the plane’s toilet.

A team of doctors in Berlin said Navalny appeared to have been poisoned by substances called “cholinesterase inhibitors”. But a Kremlin spokesperson denied Putin had ordered the poisoning of Navalny, saying the German doctors had “rushed” their diagnosis.

In recent years, poisons have been repeatedly used against former intelligence agents and critics of Putin, who was a former KGB officer. Navalny was allegedly poisoned in jail last year and was also doused in the face with chemical dye in 2017, leading to permanent eye damage. A day before the alleged poisoning last week, he was asked – as he often is – why he had not yet been assassinated. He reportedly responded that his death would not assist Putin, and that it would turn him into a hero.

Spotlight: China’s post-Covid party

Eight months after the first cases of a novel coronavirus were reported in Wuhan, the city of 11 million people appears to have quickly adjusted to life beyond lockdowns.

Recent images showed thousands of people packed together, wearing swimming costumes and no masks, at an electronic music festival at a water park. Attendees were required to present a health code from a mobile app that tracks their movements and states whether they must quarantine, but otherwise the event – like much else in China – appeared to be running normally.

Cities are ending compulsory mask requirements, tourists are flocking to seaside resorts, restaurants and markets are reportedly packed, and universities are resuming on-campus learning. Various health measures remain in place. Cinemas and other venues are required to operate at half their capacities, and any local clusters of cases prompt swift lockdowns. As of Wednesday, no community-transmitted cases had been reported in China for 10 days.

But the promising glimpses of a non-socially distanced existence in the country where the virus started were tempered this week by the first reported case of a person being reinfected. The case involved a 33-year-old man from Hong Kong who recovered from an infection more than four months ago but tested positive on August 15 after flying back from Europe and undergoing mandatory screening at the airport.

A microbiologist, Kelvin Kai-Wang To, from Hong Kong University, who studied the case, said the man had two completely different strains of the virus.

The case indicates natural immunity developed after infections may prove to be short-lived. Researchers said the finding does not diminish the potential value of a vaccine, though it suggests vaccines will need to be administered regularly. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2020 as "Putin critic in coma after likely poisoning".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.