Navalny's team calls protests amid reports of failing health

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FILE - In this Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021 file photo, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a cage in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia. A doctor for imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is in the third week of a hunger strike, said on Saturday April 17, 2021, his health is deteriorating rapidly and the 44-year-old Kremlin critic could be on the verge of death. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

MOSCOW – Associates of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny called Sunday for massive protests in the heart of Moscow and St. Petersburg on Wednesday, saying Navalny’s health is deteriorating severely during a hunger strike.

Leonid Volkov, a top strategist for Navalny, said the demonstrations were called with three days' notice because “his life hangs in the balance....We don’t know how long he can hold on. But it is clear we do not have time.”

The 44-year-old Navalny, President Vladimir Putin's most visible and persistent critic, started a hunger strike more than three weeks ago to protest prison authorities’ refusal to allow him to be seen by a private doctor. He says he is suffering from severe back pain and loss of feeling in his legs, and that the medical care in prison inadequate; the Russian penitentiary service says he is getting appropriate care.

Several doctors went Sunday to the prison colony about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Moscow where Navalny is serving time but were not allowed in to see him.

“It's cruel and monstrous to deny access to a dying patient,” Anastasia Vasilyeva, the head of a Navalny-backed doctors' union, said outside the prison.

A doctor said Saturday that test results he received from Navalny’s family showed sharply elevated levels of potassium, which could lead to cardiac arrest, and signs of kidney failure.

“Our patient could die at any moment,” the doctor, Yaroslav Ashikhmin, said.

There was no immediate comment from police or government officials about the call for protests, but the response is likely to be harsh. Police arrested more than 10,000 people during nationwide protests in January demanding Navalny's freedom.