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Alexei Navalny, jailed Russian opposition leader and Vladimir Putin critic, dies

The Federal Penitentiary Service of the Yamalo-Nenets region said Navalny felt unwell after a walk on Friday, after which he "almost immediately felt unconsciousness". A medical team was sent to resuscitate the opposition leader, but to no avail.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Moscow Updated on: February 17, 2024 6:15 IST
Alexei Navalny, Navalny death, Vladimir Putin, Russia
Image Source : REUTERS Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

Moscow: Jailed Russian opposition leader and fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Alexei Navalny, has died, according to the prison service of the Yamalo-Nenets region where he had been serving his sentence. The Federal Penitentiary Service of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District said in a statement that Navalny "felt unwell" after a walk at the IK-3 penal colony in Kharp, about 1,900 km (1,200 miles) north east of Moscow. 

"The medical staff of the institution arrived immediately, and an ambulance team was called," the prison service said, but they were unable to resuscitate Navalny. "All necessary resuscitation measures were carried out, which did not yield positive results. Doctors of the ambulance stated the death of the convict."

The cause of his death is being examined and there was no immediate confirmation of Navalny's death from his team. Meanwhile, Putin has been informed about Navalny's death, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. There was no immediate indication that Navalny’s death would spark large protests, given that the opposition is already fractured and beleaguered and the death will only deal another heavy blow.

Shortly after the death was reported, the Russian SOTA social media channel shared footage of the opposition politician — reportedly in court Thursday — laughing and joking with the judge via video link. Navalny was moved in December from a prison in central Russia to a “special regime” penal colony — the highest security level for prisons.

Navalny behind bars since 2021

Navalny was convicted and sentenced to 19 years by a Russian court on extremism charges last year, a sentence already anticipated by him and his legal team. Navalny was convicted of founding and funding an extremist organisation and its activities, although he denied this. The Kremlin critic was already serving a nine-year term for fraud and contempt of court. He was also sentenced to two-and-a-half-year imprisonment for a parole violation. 

On the eve of the verdict, Navalny released a statement on social media, in which he said he expected his latest sentence to be “huge … a Stalinist term,” referring to the Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin. The 47-year-old leader was widely considered Putin's fiercest rival and has organised major anti-Kremlin protests and exposed official corruption. 

Most of the cases against him are politically motivated, Navalny says. His anti-corruption foundation was outlawed and his offices in Russia were called 'extremist organisations' by authorities. The recent charges have criminalised all the foundation's activities since its establishment in 2011, say Navalny's allies.

In December, Navalny mysteriously disappeared from the prison four months before Russia's upcoming presidential elections, sparking concerns among his supporters after his team said he was unwell. However, Navalny was later located at a prison colony above the Arctic Circle after nearly three weeks of no contact with him, his associates said. 

His spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, said he was located in a prison colony in the town of Kharp, in the Yamalo-Nenets region about 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) northeast of Moscow. His condition was fine, given that he was expected to be transferred to a 'special regime', which is the harshest grade in Russia's prison system.

Nerve agent poisoning

Navalny was arrested in January 2021 after he suffered a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning, which he blamed on the Kremlin. He fell into a coma after a suspected poisoning using novichok by Russia’s FSB security service and was evacuated to Germany for treatment. He recovered and returned to Russia in January 2021, where he was arrested on a parole violation charge and sentenced to his first of several jail terms.

The poisoning sparked international outrage and worsened relations between Russia and the West, which had introduced sanctions on top Russian officials close to Putin. Traces of Novichok were also found in the 2018 British case of the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

He was also charged with fraud, and contempt of court when he was convicted of promoting "extremism". The US State Department also considered his prosecution and imprisonment "politically motivated". Navalny is survived by his wife and two children, Daria and Zakhar.

Reactions to Navalny's death

"Alexei Navalny paid with his life for his resistance to a system of oppression. His death in a penal colony reminds us of the reality of Vladimir Putin's regime," said France's Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Navalany was "obviously killed by Putin", as per reports. 

"I am deeply saddened by the death of Alexei Navalny. He stood up for democracy and freedom in Russia - and apparently paid for his courage with his life. This terrible news shows once again how Russia has changed and what kind of regime is in power in Moscow," said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on X.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, "Saddened & concerned by the reports of Alexei Navalny's death. Russia has serious questions to answer. Navalny has been a strong voice for freedom & democracy; NATO & Allies had long called for his release. My thoughts are with his family & loved ones."

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called it "terrible news", adding that Navalny "demonstrated incredible courage throughout his life". 

"Deeply disturbed and saddened by news of the death of Alexei Navalny. Putin fears nothing more than dissent from his own people. A grim reminder of what Putin and his regime are all about. Let's unite in our fight to safeguard the freedom and safety of those who dare to stand up against autocracy," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote.

Russian Foreign Minister Maria Zakharova lambasted Western countries for "rushing to judgement" after Navalny's death, reported TASS agency. "The leaders of NATO countries have exposed themselves with their knee-jerk reaction to Navalny’s death, making direct accusations against Russia. No forensic examination has been conducted yet but the West has already drawn conclusions," she said on Telegram.

(with inputs from agencies)

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