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Pussy Riot activist talks suspected poisoning

Pussy Riot activist Pyotr Verzilov tells CNN's Atika Shubert he believes he was poisoned by the GRU, a Russian military special unit.

Posted: Sep 29, 2018 4:23 PM
Updated: Sep 29, 2018 4:53 PM

Pytor Verzilov seems pretty relaxed for someone who nearly died two weeks ago in a suspected poisoning attack.

On Thursday, less than 24 hours out of the Berlin hospital where he was being treated, the Russian political activist has a long list of interviews lined up and plans to head back to Moscow within days. It's all part of his work to oppose the Russian government and stay alive.

"You have to set up your public relations in such a way that you being murdered would actually cause much more harm to them then you staying alive," he told CNN.

Verzilov fell ill earlier this month in Russia, first losing his vision and then losing control of his limbs. Within hours, he was delusional and finally fell unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital in Moscow. But when friends and family began to suspect he was poisoned, they flew him to Berlin for an independent assessment by German doctors

Last week, Berlin's Charite Hospital announced that it was "highly plausible" that Verzilov had been poisoned with a toxin attacking his nervous system. It took Verzilov nearly two weeks to recover and if you look closely into his eyes, you see his pupils are still unnaturally large.

'Treating it like weather'

"Essentially, I do feel almost normal in all my body conditions. But my eyes have stayed in this weird condition. I am still limited to what I can read and see," Verzilov said, adding that he wasn't surprised when relatives told him he was probably poisoned.

"I was quite calm and OK. When you do things like that in Russia, you have to be prepared for certain things to happen to you. I've been active with the Russian opposition for the last decade. And it's something that you sort of start treating it like the weather."

Verzilov is best known for staging theatrical political actions to protest Russian government policies with his collaborators, punk band Pussy Riot.

In July, he and other activists dressed up as Russian police officers and stormed the field during the FIFA World Cup final, interrupting the match and high-fiving confused players in a major embarrassment to Russian security.

He and fellow activists have been imprisoned and harassed by Russian authorities but this suspected poisoning would be a dramatic escalation. So why would Verzilov be attacked like this? He has two theories.

"There were essentially two explanations competing against each other. One is that Moscow police were quite upset that we got only 15 days for the World Cup action. It was such a high-profile event," Verzilov explained. "The number two reason is that we announced some time ago that we are looking into the murder of our three colleagues in the Central African Republic. We basically have our own investigation. The report was about to be finalized."

Three journalists killed

As editor of independent online magazine Mediazona, Verzilov said, he had planned to travel to the Central African Republic with his friend, documentary filmmaker Alexander Rastorguyev, and two other journalists to investigate the activities of the Wagner Group -- a shadowy private security company with links to the Kremlin, whose mercenaries have been documented in conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

Wagner has no known address, phone number or official records. But because he was detained after his World Cup action, Verzilov says he had to cancel his plans and the journalists continued without him.

The journalists -- Rastorguyev, Orhan Dzhemal and Kirill Radchenko -- were killed, and were identified by documents found with their bodies, according to the Russian foreign ministry. Their deaths occurred near the city of Sibut, about 185 miles north of the capital Bangui. Sibut's mayor, Henri Depele, told Reuters the three were ambushed by armed men who opened fire on their vehicle. Russian law enforcement opened a criminal probe into their deaths. Verzilov said he decided to investigate the killings himself.

'A serious hit for me'

"Besides him being one of my best friends, Alexander was one of my main collaborators over the last few months," Verzilov said. "So that was obviously a very serious hit for me when he was murdered."

The evening before the suspected poisoning, Verzilov said, he received a confidential report from investigators on the ground in CAR with a number of substantial leads on who carried out the killings. When Verzilov fell ill, his wife and Pussy Riot member, Nadya Tolokonnikova, worked with American political activist Hunter Heaney to secure copies of the report.

"We were concerned originally that Pyotr was the only one with a copy of the report. Because he had received it just the evening before he was poisoned," explained Heaney. "We got it to some journalists right away under embargo. So that if anything further were ever to happen to any of us, it would be published in full."

Suspicious death

Maxim Borodin was another journalist investigating the Wagner Group when he died under suspicious circumstances, falling from his fifth-floor balcony. Russian police did not open a criminal investigation, despite the requests of human rights organizations.

Verzilov is sanguine about who might be responsible for his own suspected poisoning.

"It seems the Russian military special unit called GRU, they are the most likely organization that has the capability to make these attacks," Verzilov said, referring to Russia's military intelligence body.

"Someone asked me: Is Vladimir Putin personally giving orders? They have a general line of how they can behave. And how to protect themselves. And apparently going after people in certain parts of the world is something they are allowed to do. With this in mind, you just have to plan and think of ways to carry on your work."

Asking for probe

Verzilov has submitted an official request to police to launch a criminal investigation into his suspected poisoning through Tolokonnikova. The Russian government has refused to comment on Verzilov's case, saying it is a matter for local authorities who have yet to open an investigation.

"We want to open an official investigation," she told CNN. "We are really concerned that none of the Russian authorities, not even one, has commented on this case. Pyotr almost died! This was an attempt to murder him. But police, FSB, the administration of the President, they are all silent on this case."

Doctors in Berlin are still investigating the cause of Verzilov's illness. On September 18, Dr. Kai-Uwe Eckardt of the Berlin Charite Hospital said that it was "highly plausible" that Verzilov had been poisoned with a toxin that attacked his nervous system. However, without the original blood tests taken within the first 48 hours of the attack, German doctors say they have been unable to pinpoint the exact cause.

Heaney described the last week as an emotional roller coaster, as friends and family gathered around Verzilov's hospital bed, unsure if he would ever recover.

"It was scary. You would talk to him and nobody was home," Heaney told CNN. "Wondering if he can ever come back. Wondering if that was the intent of all this."

Berlin police are now stationed outside his temporary residence in Berlin, after reports of suspicious surveillance around the hospital. In one incident, Heaney noticed two men, one of them bald, surreptitiously watching his temporary apartment in Berlin. The next morning, after spending the night with Verzilov at the hospital, Heaney abruptly changed his route home to avoid an empty street.

But none of this seems to dissuade Verzilov from returning to Moscow and continuing his political activity. He said he doesn't plan to make any dramatic changes to his security.

"In Russia, for us, it's even kind of useless to have a bodyguard. If people want to do something to you, they'll still do it no matter how big your security detail is."

For Verzilov, his best defense is to make his life -- and his political activity -- as public as possible.

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