Pussy Riot member 'poisoned', colleagues say

In this photo taken dated Friday, Sept. 7, 2018, Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the feminist protest group Pussy Riot speaks during an interview to the Associated Press in Moscow, Russia. 
Alexander Zemlianichenko | AP
In this photo taken dated Friday, Sept. 7, 2018, Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the feminist protest group Pussy Riot speaks during an interview to the Associated Press in Moscow, Russia. 

A member of the Russian activist group Pussy Riot, known for their acts of protest against President Vladimir Putin's government, is seriously ill in hospital after a suspected poisoning, fellow group members said.

Petr Verzilov, who was recently jailed for staging a pitch invasion and protest during the World Cup final in Moscow in July, is in serious but stable condition after what doctors said was likely a poisoning induced by an overdose on medicines that block nerve impulses, according to fellow group member Maria Alyokhina.

The claim comes a week after UK officials accused two Russian military intelligence agents of poisoning double agent Sergei Skripal with the nerve agent novichok in the English city of Salisbury in March. The Russian government has denied being involved in the attempted assassination.

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Veronika Nikulshina, Mr. Verzilov's girlfriend, told radio station Ekho Moskvy that Mr. Verzilov first felt symptoms on Tuesday evening when his vision began to deteriorate. "He said, 'Can you believe it? Here I am and my eyesight's darkening, that's old age for you,'" Ms. Nikulshina said.

Within hours, however, Mr. Verzilov became disoriented and his speech became slurred. "He couldn't even recognize me, but he could react to what the doctors were asking him," she said.

Doctors let Ms. Nikulshina and Mr. Verzilov's mother visit him on Thursday afternoon after previously denying them access.

According to Mr. Verzilov's friends, doctors suspect his condition was brought on by ingesting anticholinergic drugs, which block nerve impulses and are used to treat a variety of illnesses from gastric and respiratory problems to dizziness and insomnia.

Ms. Nikulshina said Mr. Verzilov did not take drugs and drank moderately. Mr. Verzilov's friends said they were certain he did not ingest the medication deliberately. "[Petr] has iron health, so I don't know," Ms. Alyokhina said.

A fellow anti-Putin activist, Vladimir Kara-Murza, has said he believes he was deliberately poisoned twice in the past three years with an unknown substance that left him near death. Ms. Alyokhina said Mr. Verzilov's symptoms differed from those of Mr. Kara-Murza, who recovered fully.`

Pussy Riot achieved international notoriety in 2012 for staging a punk performance in Moscow's main cathedral as a protest against the Orthodox church's support for Mr. Putin's re-election campaign.

Ms. Alyokhina and Mr. Verzilov's wife Nadezhda Tolokonnikova spent two years in prison after being convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" for the performance.

The group, known for wearing bright fluorescent tights and balaclavas and campaigning for feminism and LGBT rights, has since staged a series of protest acts and performance art stunts against Mr. Putin's rule.

Although his role in the ostensibly all-female group is difficult to define, Mr. Verzilov — who has a Canadian passport and speaks flawless English — emerged as its de facto svengali, touring the world with Ms. Alyokhina and Ms. Tolokonnikova following their release.

Mr. Verzilov has continued to organize Pussy Riot performances even after the three of them split.

During this year's football World Cup final, Mr. Verzilov, Ms. Nikulshina, and two other members of the group ran on to the pitch during the match dressed as Russian policemen to protest violent repression of dissidents. All four of them were sentenced to 15 days in jail for disturbing the peace.

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