A notorious ally of Vladimir Putin says he will use Russia’s corrupt courts to destroy Alexei Navalny financially if the stricken opposition leader ever recovers from a chemical agent believed to have been slipped into his tea.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was sanctioned by the U.S. for financing online efforts to distort the 2016 presidential election, used a company to buy out debts owed by Navalny so that he could increase the financial pressure on the anti-corruption campaigner.
He chose the moment that Navalny was at his weakest—unconscious in a hospital bed—to make the announcement.
“I intend to strip this group of unscrupulous people of their clothes and shoes,” Prigozhin said.
Navalny, the leading opponent of President Putin’s government, is in a coma in a Berlin hospital, where German doctors say they found evidence of cholinesterase inhibitors in his body, which could indicate the use of weapons-grade nerve agents.
Prigozhin got the nickname “Putin’s chef” because of the success of his catering company, but his empire, which includes billions of dollars in Russian government contracts, stretches well beyond food preparation. The U.S. government accuses him of funding the Internet Research Agency, an online troll farm that helped to get Donald Trump elected president. Prigozhin is also accused of financing Wagner, a private army used by the Kremlin for some of its most nefarious overseas missions, but he denies any involvement.
On Tuesday night, his company Concord announced that it would do everything it could to collect a court-ordered fine of 88 million rubles (around $1.2 million) that he bought from Moskovsky Shkolnik (Moscow Schoolboy), a company Navalny was found guilty of defaming in a video report, according to the Moscow Times.
Prigozhin was quoted as saying on Concord’s social-media accounts Wednesday, “If comrade Navalny kicks the bucket, I personally don’t intend to persecute him in this world. I’ll put this off for an indefinite time and then I’ll compensate myself to my pleasure.”
He added that if Navalny survives, he would be liable “according to the full severity of Russian law” to pay off his court-ordered debt.
Navalny was rushed to a hospital in Omsk last week after losing consciousness on a flight back to Moscow, after campaigning against Putin in local elections.
Ivan Zhdanov, a key ally of Navalny and director of his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), has claimed that Putin must have authorized the suspected poisoning. “He hates what the FBK does too much, exposing him and his entourage.”
The Kremlin brushed off the accusation as “hot air” and stood by earlier reports from a Siberian hospital where Navalny was first treated that said no evidence of poisoning had been found.