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Alexei Navalny dead: Putin told Russia must face consequences after critic dies in prison

Russia must face consequences over the death of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, leaders from around the world have said – pointing the finger squarely at the Kremlin as being responsible for the end of Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critic.

Navalny, 47, had recently been moved to a jail near the Arctic Circle where he was serving almost two decades on charges that supporters and much of the international community believe were trumped up in order to silence him. It was the prison service that announced the news. Navalny’s team said his lawyer was urgently flying there, but could not confirm his death.

And in a defiant statement at the Munich Security Conference, Navalny’s wife Yulia warned Putin and “his friends that they will not go unpunished”.

The federal prison service said in a statement that Navalny felt unwell after a walk on Friday and lost consciousness. An ambulance arrived to try to rehabilitate him, but he died, the statement added.

British Foreign Minister David Cameron said that Putin should be held accountable. “There should be consequences, because there’s no doubt in my mind, this man was a brave fighter against corruption, for justice for democracy.”.

“We should hold Putin accountable for this,” Mr Cameron said, speaking to reporters in Munich where he is attending a security conference.

US Vice President Kamala Harris said the death was another sign of the “brutality” of Putin’s regime, while at the same conference. The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, added: “[Navalny’s] death in a Russian prison and the fixation and fear of one man only underscores the weakness and rot at the heart of the system that Putin has built. Russia is responsible for this.”

Other leaders from Germany, France and other European nations all painted a similar picture. “The EU holds the Russian regime solely responsible for this tragic death,“ said EU Council President Charles Michel.

Alexei Navalny, 47, has died in jail, Russian authorities have said

(Reuters)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose nation is fighting off an invasion by Putin’s forces, said: “It is obvious: he was killed by Putin, as thousands of others were tortured and martyred by this one creature. Putin does not care who dies as long as he keeps his position. And that is why he should not keep anything. Putin should lose everything and answer for what he has done.”

Navalny’s wife, Yulia, called on the international community to come together and fight against the “horrific regime” in Russia, in a statement at the Munich Security Conference, speaking in Russian via an interpreter.

“I don’t know whether to believe the news, the terrible news that we are receiving only from the state sources in Russia,” she said, adding that Putin and his government are “always lying”.

“But if this is true, I would like that Putin and all his coterie, Putin’s friends, his government to know that they will be accountable for what they’ve done to our country, to my family, and to my husband. They will be liable for that. That day will come very soon.”

A day earlier, Navalny gave testimony by videolink to a court hearing. On the television screen, he peered through a barred window, laughing and cracking jokes about his depleting funds and the judge’s salary, asking if the judge could “warm up” his bank account. Local reports said that the court session was convened after an “argument” with a prison officer who tried to confiscate Navalny’s pen. The opposition leader wrote on social media later on Thursday that he had been given 15 days in solitary confinement.

It was his last such message.

The Kremlin has said that it had no information about Navalny’s death, but that Putin had been been informed.

The Independent Daily Edition from 28 December last year

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Navalny was jailed and charged in multiple cases when he returned to Russia in 2021, having been treated in Germany for nerve agent poisoning – that he blamed on the Kremlin. In December, The Independent pleaded for his release with a Daily Edition front page demanding: “Free Navalny from his Polar Wolf prison colony hell.”

Fingers will no doubt point at the Kremlin. Russian newspaper editor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov called Navalny’s “murder”, and said that he believed prison conditions had led to his demise, while exiled Russian businessman and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky said that Putin was responsible.

Speaking to The Independent, Bill Browder, a Putin critic who has felt the threat from the Kremlin himself, said: “Let’s make no mistake, Putin assassinated Alexei Navalny. He did so because Alexei Navalny was brave enough to stand up to Putin. He did so because Navalny offered the Russian people and alternative to kleptocracy and repression.

“This is a tragic day for Navalny and his family but also for Russia and the hope for a better future.”

EU Council president Charles Michel also said that the EU holds Russia responsible. “Alexei Navalny fought for the values of freedom and democracy,” Mr Michel said in a post on X. “For his ideals, he made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Russia’s Investigative Committee has launched a procedural probe into the death, the Investigative Committee said.

Navalny and his wife Yulia leaving Germany in 2021

(AFP via Getty Images)

Navalny’s current 19-year sentence was on charges of extremism. He went missing for three weeks in December when being moved from his previous prison in the Vladimir region of central Russia to a “special regime” penal colony — the highest security level of prisons in Russia — above the Artic Circle.

He came to fame and became a target for the Kremlin after accusing Putin and the hierarchy around him of corruption and abuse. The president, he said, is a “madman” and his ruling party “crooks and thieves.”

Navalny urged people not to simply complain about the malaise in Russia but to take action: “Everyone says corruption is everywhere but for me, it seems strange to say that and then not try to put the people guilty of corruption away.”

As support grew, he did not hesitate to aim at the top, accusing Putin of running a system of “feudal patronage” with fabulous rewards. A documentary he presented – “Putin’s Palace: The Story of the World’s Biggest Bribe” – investigated the building of a £1.35bn luxury mansion, allegedly for the president, in the Krasnodar region. The Kremlin denied the claim but the video racked up more than 110 million views internationally.

Navalny, pictured in 2017, was a vocal critics of Vladamir Putin

(Getty Images)

Navalny also pointed to the activities of the security apparatus and the plight of Russians pushing back against the state. “We have grown accustomed to injustice in Russia, people are constantly being arrested unlawfully,” he said. He also foresaw the inevitable retribution he would face: “I am in the very blackest part of the black list.”

Over the years, Navalny faced physical attacks, repeated arrests, investigations, and criminal proceedings. The assassination attempt, via Novichok poisoning in Russia resulted in him being evacuated to Germany in a coma for life-saving treatment.

His family and lawyers have previously said he had been suffering from an acute, undiagnosed, stomach illness while in prison. That, and general deprivation, has led to alarming weight loss and fainting spells.

He had returned to Russia following the poisoningm despite warnings from allies and friends that it would be highly dangerous. He was arrested at the airport, put before a court, and sentenced to two and half years of a former suspended jail term for alleged fraud.

Police officers detain Navalny after he registered as a mayoral election candidate in July 2013

(REUTERS)

This was just a holding move by the government prosecutors. In August 2022 he was sentenced to nine years in prison after being found guilty of spending public donations to his Anti-Corruption Foundation on “extremism and personal needs”. In August this year, he was sentenced to a further 19 years of a raft of “extremism” charges. There were further charges, this time of “vandalism”, due.

If the authorities thought that prison would keep Navalny quiet, they were mistaken. A lawyer himself, with a dedicated legal team backing him, he has filed suits to get adequate medical care, an end to the bugging of rooms where he met visitors, and no more broadcasts of Putin’s speeches into his cell.

Russia’s most prominent inmate has also given interviews in prison laying out the conditions he has faced. Describing the violence and repression of a penal colony, he told The New York Times: “You might imagine tattooed musclemen with steel teeth carrying on with knife fights to take the best cot by the window. You need to imagine something like a Chinese labour camp, where everybody marches in a line and where video cameras are hung everywhere. There is constant control and a culture of snitching.”

Mr Putin never referred to Navalny by name

(Sputnik)

On other occasions, Mr Navalny has spoken about the mistreatment he has suffered: “I now understand why sleep deprivation is one of the favourite tortures of the special services. No traces remain, and it’s impossible to tolerate.”

He had to cope with the lingering effect of the Novichok poisoning with barely any medical help in prison. “It [has] got to the point where it’s hard to get up from the bed, and it hurts a lot. The prison doctor saw me and started dispensing two ibuprofen pills but did not tell me what my diagnosis is … If I place my weight on my right leg, I fall right down. I’ve got used to my right leg lately, and I’d hate to lose it.”

By concentrating on corruption, Navalny’s work had a pocketbook appeal to Russians’ widespread sense of being cheated, and he carried stronger resonance than more abstract and philosophical concerns about democratic ideals and human rights.

He was also among the opposition leaders involved in mass protests against Putin’s rule from 2011 to 2013.

Navalny was convicted in 2013 of embezzlement on what he called a politically motivated prosecution and was sentenced to five years in prison, but the prosecutor’s office later surprisingly demanded his release pending appeal. A higher court later gave him a suspended sentence.

Navalny, centre, attending a rally in Moscow in 2018

(AP)

The day before the sentence, Navalny had registered as a candidate for Moscow mayor. The opposition saw his release as the result of large protests in the capital of his sentence, but many observers attributed it to a desire by authorities to add a tinge of legitimacy to the mayoral election.

Navalny finished second, an impressive performance against the incumbent who had the backing of Putin’s political machine and was popular for improving the capital’s infrastructure and aesthetics.

Navalny’s popularity increased after the leading charismatic politician, Boris Nemtsov, was shot and killed in 2015 on a bridge near the Kremlin.

Whenever Putin spoke about Navalny, he made it a point to never mention the activist by name, referring to him as “that person” or similar wording, in an apparent effort to diminish his importance.

Navalny’s disappearance was not altogether an unusual event for those challenging the brutally powerful. Adversaries of Latin American military juntas, of organised crime gangs, of terrorist groups and of violent dictators around the world are among the disappeared. Some stay missing for ever; others turn up dead.

People like Boris Nemtsov, who was killed with four bullets to his back in Moscow in 2014, when he was organising protests against financial corruption and Russian intervention in Ukraine. Or, more recently, Yevgeny Prigozhin and his senior commanders, whose plane was blown out of the sky following the failed coup by their Wagner mercenaries.


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