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World Russian-Canadian Pussy Riot member says he believes he was poisoned by Russian operatives

Anti-Kremlin activist and publisher of a Russian online news portal Pyotr Verzilov (left), who undergoes treatment at a hospital, speaks with founder of Pussy Riot protest group Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (right), in Berlin, Germany.

HANDOUT/Reuters

A Russian-Canadian dissident who recently emerged from a 12-day bout of unconsciousness says he believes the Russian state poisoned him as punishment for his activism.

Speaking by telephone to The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, shortly after being released from a hospital in Germany – where he was flown for emergency treatment – Pyotr Verzilov said he believed “someone from the Russian security forces” slipped poison into his food or drink on Sept. 11, the day he lost consciousness shortly after attending the court hearing of a fellow activist in Moscow.

“I don’t remember anything between the moment when I started feeling bad and when I woke up [on Sept. 23] in a hospital in Germany,” Mr. Verzilov said, sounding relieved and speaking English, which he perfected while attending high school in Toronto.

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The 30-year-old – who rose to prominence through his affiliation with the anti-Kremlin punk group Pussy Riot – said he had no doubt the Russian regime was behind the apparent attack. “No private entity has the capability of doing anything like that.”

Mr. Verzilov described his ordeal as “like being in a black hole” in a posting on his Twitter account. “I am spending my days in the friendly company of wonderful poisons. But not polonium-210 or Novichok, but something new and surprising.”

Charité hospital in Berlin said in a statement after Mr. Verzilov’s discharge on Wednesday that poisoning was the “most plausible explanation” for his sudden illness.

Mr. Verzilov said he had some lingering symptoms on Wednesday, including blurred vision and spells of dizziness. He remained under German police protection after one of his friends spotted a vehicle that appeared to be watching those coming and going from the hospital.

Mr. Verzilov, the publisher of the anti-government news website Mediazona, is the latest in a long line of Russian dissidents to fall mysteriously ill after displeasing the Kremlin. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya became sick after drinking tea in 2004, the same year former Ukrainian presidential hopeful Viktor Yushchenko’s face was disfigured after he absorbed an almost-lethal dose of dioxins. Both survived, although Ms. Politkovskaya was shot dead two years later.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who became a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was murdered in London in 2006. Radioactive polonium was slipped into his tea. Another former KGB agent, Sergei Skripal, fell ill earlier this year in Salisbury after two men whom the British government says are Russian agents applied the nerve agent Novichok to the doorknob of his home.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a prominent member of the anti-Putin opposition, has survived two apparent poisonings, in 2015 and 2017.

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Mr. Verzilov said he could have been targeted as punishment for his involvement in Pussy Riot’s on-field protest this summer at the soccer World Cup, which Russia was hosting. He was one of four members who ran onto the field during the tournament’s final game between France and Croatia.

All four received 15-day prison sentences. Mr. Verzilov suspects some felt that “wasn’t enough” for a protest that embarrassed Russia’s security services in front of Mr. Putin, who watched the game from the VIP booth.

Mr. Verzilov said the apparent poisoning could also have been an attempt to make him stop a Mediazona investigation into the murder of three Russian journalists in July while reporting on the presence of Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic. Mr. Verzilov said Mediazona would continue its investigation into the deaths of Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev and Kirill Radchenko.

Mr. Verzilov said he does not believe the mysterious poison was meant to kill him – only to send a warning. “I wouldn’t suggest that murder was the desired option, or they would have been even more aggressive. It was more of a showpiece.”

Mr. Verzilov said he was grateful for the support of the Canadian government during his illness. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke to Mr. Verzilov’s parents shortly after he fell ill, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly expressed his concern and linked the case to the attack on Mr. Skripal. Stéphane Dion, Canada’s ambassador to Germany, visited Mr. Verzilov in hospital earlier this week.

Mr. Verzilov said he nonetheless feels more Russian than Canadian, and intends to return to Russia as soon as possible. “We’ll continue our work to make Russia a better place,” he said.

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If the poisoning was supposed to scare him into stopping his anti-Kremlin activism, he says it failed. “When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, fear isn’t really a plausible option.”

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