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Pussy Riot: 'Poisoned' activist flown to Berlin for medical treatment

Posted: 6:29 AM, Sep 16, 2018
Updated: 2018-09-16 20:31:01Z

A member of Russian protest group Pussy Riot has arrived in Berlin for medical treatment, following what the activists claim was a suspected poisoning in Moscow last week.

Pyotr Verzilov, who is also the husband of prominent band member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, flew into Berlin on Saturday, according to Germany's Cinema for Peace Foundation, a non-profit humanitarian group that has previously advocated for Pussy Riot and which organized the flight.

Verzilov had been in the intensive care unit at a Moscow hospital after falling ill. His father and wife "pushed for the immediate move to Berlin in order to find out if he was poisoned and by what, and to ensure the best recovery," said Jaka Bizilj, founder of the Cinema For Peace initiative and chairman of the board of the foundation.

The activist's wife, better known as Nadya, on Saturday posted a photo on Twitter of her visitor badge at Berlin Brandenburg Airport, saying he would soon be arriving. Another video appeared to show Verzilov on a plane.

The Russian punk band -- known for obscuring their identities with colorful balaclava-style masks -- is an outspoken critic of the Putin government. The Russian government has not so far commented on Verzilov's illness.

On Thursday the group said on its verified Twitter account that Verzilov's life was in danger, adding: "We think that he was poisoned."

The activist lost his sight, speech and ability to walk, family members told German newspaper Bild, Reuters reported. However another band member, Veronika Nikulshina, told Reuters from Verzilov's hospital room that he was now "better" and "everything is okay."

CNN has not independently verified the claims.

Verzilov was one of four protesters dressed as police officers who rushed the field during the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow in July.

In a statement, Pussy Riot claimed responsibility for the demonstration and called for political prisoners to be freed, for the arrests of opposition protesters to cease, and for the jailing of citizens over their social media activity to end.

"The attack (last week) is regarded as revenge for appearing in the World Cup final to support human rights in Russia," said the Cinema for Peace Foundation in a statement Sunday.

Verzilov is a joint Russia-Canada citizen, and on Thursday Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the situation was of concern, "particularly given actions of recent months by the Russians in the UK."

Trudeau appeared to be referring to the alleged Russian poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the southern English city of Salisbury in March. CNN asked the Russian foreign ministry for comment on Trudeau's comments but has yet to receive a reply.

It was later determined that they had been poisoned with a powerful nerve agent called Novichok, which British investigators tied to the Russian government. Russia has denied the claims.

Imprisoned for 'hooliganism'

Nearly six years ago, three of Pussy Riot's members -- Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich -- were charged with hooliganism and sentenced to two years in prison for performing an anti-Putin protest song called "Punk Prayer" at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

One of them, Samutsevich, had her sentence suspended on appeal, but the others served their sentences until being released in December 2013.

They have continued to be critical of Putin and his government in subsequent years. On their release, they founded an independent media outlet that advocates for political prisoners, including through "immersive" theater projects.