The Berlin NGO behind Kremlin critic Navalny's rescue

BERLIN (AFP) – As outspoken Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny arrives in Germany for medical treatment, a small Berlin-based non-government organisation (NGO) has been leading the charge to bring him from Siberia, where he was lying in a coma after a suspected poisoning.

The Cinema for Peace foundation arranged for a medical plane that retrieved Mr Navalny from hospital in the city of Omsk, landing Saturday (Aug 22) in Berlin to transfer him to the German capital’s renowned Charite hospital for treatment.

Activists said it was vital for Mr Navalny to be taken to Berlin as soon as possible so that German doctors can establish the reason for his illness, which Russian medics had blamed on a possible blood sugar disorder.

The group’s founder, Slovenian-born Jaka Bizilj told German media the flight and the medical personnel on board were being paid for through private donations.

It’s not the first time the NGO has brought an apparently poisoned Kremlin critic to Germany: In 2018, it helped fly Mr Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot, to Berlin.

Mr Verzilov was unconscious when he was brought to Berlin four days after falling ill following a court hearing, but recovered after being treated at the Charite.

It was Mr Verzilov who asked Mr Bizilj for help in transporting Mr Navalny to Germany, according to the NGO.

Mr Bizilj had told a press conference on Friday that the Charite hospital was ready to offer Mr Navalny treatment.


“We worked all night to make this flight possible,” Mr Bizilj said. “But it turned out a little bit differently from how we expected.”

Russian doctors initially dug in their heels over whether their patient was well enough to board the plane, but relented when faced with demands for his release from his family and staff.

In spite of its humanitarian efforts, Cinema for Peace has also drawn criticism for trying to whitewash media coverage and a lack of transparency over its funding.

According to the organisation’s website, film producer and concert promoter Mr Bizilj launched the initiative after the New York terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001.

His goal was to “influence through films the perception and resolution of global social, political, and humanitarian challenges of our time – and especially to oppose war and terror”.

Since 2002, the organisation has held an annual awards gala to coincide with the German capital’s Berlinale film festival with the aim of showcasing films and artists committed to peace and justice.


Hollywood stars and politicians are regular guests at the event, with last year’s VIPs including actress Charlize Theron and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

The NGO has also organised installations and film screenings with Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei.

But while musician and human rights activist Bob Geldof once called the awards “the Oscars with brains”, former Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick has accused the organisers of a lack of transparency.

And in 2015, the Tageszeitung newspaper published an opinion piece criticising the NGO for trying to intimidate journalists who had written critical reports about its gala event.

“They fight resolutely for freedom of opinion – as long as everyone has the same one,” the piece charged.

Although the organisation is open about who benefits from the proceeds of the gala – the foundation itself, as well as UN organisations and the charitable foundations of participating actors – its website has been criticised for not featuring an annual report with details of donors and expenses.

Mr Bizilj has repeatedly pledged that external auditors would monitor the legal use of the donations.

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