FILE – Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is seen on a TV screen, as he appears in a video link provided by the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service in a courtroom of the Second Court of Cassation of General Jurisdiction in Moscow, Russia, on 18 October 2022 Navalny's allies are sounding the alarm and saying that neither they nor their lawyers have heard from him for six days. Navalny is serving a 19-year prison sentence on charges of extremism. He was due to appear in court on Monday 11 December 2023 via video link but did not do so. (AP photo, file)

MOSCOW — The loss of contact with Alexei Navalny in the prison colony where the opposition leader was being held likely signals an effort by the Kremlin to increase its isolation as President Vladimir Putin runs for re-election over the next three months, Navalny's spokeswoman said at Tuesday.

Concerns about Navalny spread on Monday after officials at the facility east of Moscow said he was no longer on the inmate list. Navalny's spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, said his associates and lawyers have been unable to contact him for a week. Prison authorities said he was transferred from the colony where he is serving a 19-year sentence on extremism charges, but did not say where he went.

READ: Navalny's whereabouts unknown; Russian prison says he is no longer there

Prison transfers in Russia are notoriously secretive, and authorities do not provide information on inmates' whereabouts for weeks until they arrive at another facility and are given permission to contact family or lawyers.

“Now we have to look for him in all special regime colonies in Russia,” Yarmysh told the Associated Press. “And there are about 30 of them across Russia. So we have no idea where we will find it.”

She noted that “they can transfer a prisoner for weeks or even months, and no one will know where he is.”

Russia's Federal Penitentiary Service did not immediately respond to an AP request for comment on Navalny's possible transfer and whereabouts. Earlier this year, another prominent opposition figure, Andrei Pivovarov, also disappeared during a prison transfer. His transfer from a detention center in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia to a penal colony in northwestern Karelia took about a month.

READ: Russia's Navalny faces decades behind bars as judge rejects appeal

Once in a new facility, prison officials are legally required to notify family members or lawyers within 10 days, but Yarmysh said they can hardly be expected to follow the rules in Navalny's case.

She said authorities will likely try to keep Navalny's location secret as long as they can, after Putin on Friday declared his intention to seek another six-year term in elections on March 17, moving to extend his rule for more. two decades.

“They will try to hide it for as long as possible,” Yarmysh said. “I think this was done deliberately to isolate Alexei during this period of time, so that he could not influence all these things in any way, because everyone understands – and Putin, of course, understands – that Alexei is his main rival, even despite of the fact that he was not on the vote.”

Asked on Tuesday where Navalny is, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded that “we have neither the desire nor the opportunity to track prisoners.”

Commenting on US expressions of concern about Navalny, Peskov said in a conference call with reporters that he was convicted and is serving his sentence, adding that “we consider any interference, including by the United States, to be inadmissible.”

Navalny, 47, has been behind bars since January 2021, when he was arrested upon returning from Germany, where he was recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin. Navalny, who has campaigned against official corruption and organized large anti-government protests, has dismissed all charges against him as politically motivated revenge.

Navalny is serving his sentence at Penal Colony No. 6 in the city of Melekhovo in the Vladimir region, about 230 kilometers (140 miles) east of Moscow. He would be transferred to a penal colony with an even higher level of security.

The loss of contact with Navalny was particularly worrying given that he had recently fallen ill, Yarmysh said. She said prison staff gave him an intravenous drip when he felt dizzy and had to lie down on the floor of his cell.

“It appears it may have been a starvation faint because he is not being fed properly and has no ventilation in his cell and no adequate time for exercise,” Yarmysh said.

Although Putin's re-election is almost certain given his overwhelming control over the country's political scene and increasing crackdown on dissent, Navalny's supporters and other critics hope to use the campaign to undermine public support for the Kremlin leader and to its military action in Ukraine.

Authorities could try to send Navalny to a remote colony to further limit his influence, Yarmysh said. Since the beginning of his arrest, he has continued his scathing attacks on the Kremlin in comments that his associates posted on social media.

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“I think they decided it would be smarter to send him away because he is still very loud and very present in the public field,” Yarmysh said.