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Who is Alexei Navalny's NGO rescuer?

Ian P. Johnson
August 23, 2020

Alexei Navalny's evacuation from Siberia was organized by Berlin-based NGO the Cinema for Peace Foundation. Since 2002, it's drawn support from major Hollywood stars.

Life jackets are attached to the columns at the Konzerthaus in central Berlin
Artist Ai Weiwei installed thousands of life jackets at the Cinema for Peace gala venue in 2016 to raise awareness about the migrant crisisImage: Imago Images/POP-EYE/C. Kratsch

Russian dissident politician Alexei Navalny was flown from Omsk to Berlin for medical treatment on Saturday aboard a plane arranged by the Cinema for Peace Foundation.

The 44-year-old was in a coma after a suspected poisoning, although Russian doctors put his illness down to a possible blood sugar disorder. 

The founder of the NGO behind his evacuation, Jaka Bizilj, said private donations had paid for the flight — a Bombardier Challenger chartered by a Nuremberg-based firm — as well as for the medical staff on board.

Jaka Bizilj talks to DW

Read more: Alexei Navalny: A Russian dissident battles Kremlin, Putin

'Very expensive' at short notice 

Bizilj told DW that plans for the evacuation were set in motion on Thursday after members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot Nadya Tolokonnikova and Pyotr Verzilov appealed to the NGO for help.

"I got a call from Nadia Tolokonnikova from Los Angeles, from Pussy Riot, and from Pyotr from Moscow, asking me if we could help a dear friend, Alexei, who'd got poisoned too," Bizilj told DW in an interview. The foundation had flown Verzilov himself to Berlin in 2018 after he was poisoned and fell ill. 

Bizilj stressed that although the governments of Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Emmanuel Macron had been briefed, Navalny's airlift to Berlin had been a "private" activity.

"It was very expensive to do it in at very short notice, but in the end, during the process, without having to think much about it, private persons came forward and took over [costs]," he said, adding that the charter flight would not burden taxpayers.

Bizilj also described Kavalny's family's relief that safe passage was found. "They are relieved to be in a first-class hospital, to have good treatment," he said. "And obviously now it will be a question of what the doctors can do and have to do. ... This will probably be a long procedure and there is a long way to go. As we have heard from the doctors, if there would not have been this emergency landing in Omsk, if they would’ve tried to fly on to Moscow, he would have died." 

Jaka Bizilj
Film producer and concert promoter Jaka Bizilj Image: Getty Images/M. Hitij

Star power

Born in Slovenia in 1971, Bizilj is a film and show producer with a list of connections that reads like a who's who of Hollywood and world diplomacy — including names like Mikhail Gorbachev, Sharon Stone and Ai Weiwei

He launched the Cinema for Peace Foundation in 2002 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," according to the organization's website.

Its Genocide Film Library includes material on the 1992-95 Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict. The NGO also runs screenings for schools and students, including films such as South Africa's "Themba — a Boy Called Hope," about a football novice who loses his mother to HIV/AIDS.

Since its founding, the NGO has held an annual fundraising and awards gala to coincide with the Berlin Film Festival. The event often draws Hollywood stars and prominent political figures — last year actor Charlize Theron and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder were among the guests.

Guests at the Cinema for Peace gala draped in gold rescue blankets
In 2016, Ai Weiwei draped guests in gold rescue blankets to highlight the horrors of Mediterranean migrant drowningsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Sophie Albers Ben Chamo

Rock star and rights activist Bob Geldof was once quoted as describing the foundation's galas, which aim to showcase work dedicated to peace and justice, as an "Oscars with brain."