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Russia: Over 400 detained while paying tribute to Alexei Navalny, Putin's longtime rival

Russian prison authorities said that Navalny died after taking a walk at the Arctic penal colony last week. However, conflicting reports emerged about the cause of death, raising suspicions among Navalny's supporters about the transparency of the investigation.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Moscow Published on: February 19, 2024 10:00 IST
Russia, Alexei Navalny death, people detained
Image Source : AP Tribute to Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny near the Russian consulate in Frankfurt, Germany.

Moscow: More than 400 people were detained in Russia while paying their respects to opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died at a remote Arctic penal colony, according to a prominent rights group. Some of those arrested faced jail terms and fines, among them a priest of the Apostolic Orthodox Church, who was arrested outside his home on Saturday.

Navalny, a longtime and fierce opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was imprisoned since 2021 after he returned to Russia following a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin. His sudden death was a crushing blow to Putin's critics and sparked international outrage, with Western leaders, including US President Joe Biden blaming Putin.

Hundreds of people in dozens of Russian cities streamed to ad-hoc memorials and monuments to victims of political repressions with flowers and candles on Friday and Saturday to pay a tribute to Navalny. Police detained over 401 people by Saturday night, according to the OVD-Info rights group that tracks political arrests and provides legal aid. More than half of the arrests came from St Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city.

Grigory Mikhnov-Voitenko, a priest of the Apostolic Orthodox Church, announced plans on social media to hold a memorial service for Navalny but was arrested outside his home. He was charged with organising a rally and placed in a holding cell in a police precinct, but was later hospitalised with a stroke, OVD-Info reported.

Meanwhile, courts in St. Petersburg ordered 42 of those detained on Friday to serve from one to six days in jail, while nine others were fined, court officials said late on Saturday. In Moscow, at least six people were ordered to serve 15 days in jail, according to OVD-Info. One person was also jailed in the southern city of Krasnodar and two more in the city of Bryansk, the group said.

Questions remain over Navalny's death

Russian prison authorities announced on Friday that Navalny felt unwell after a walk at a penal colony and almost immediately fell unconscious, after which all attempts to revive him failed. Navalny, a longtime fierce critic of Putin and the Kremlin, was serving a 30-year-old sentence at a “special regime” penal colony — the highest security level of prisons in the country — above the Arctic Circle. He was given three prison sentences after his return to Russia.

The stunning news — less than a month before an election that will give Putin another six years in power — brought renewed criticism and outrage directed at the Kremlin leader who has cracked down on all opposition at home. Navalny's team on Saturday said the politician was “murdered” and accused the authorities of deliberately stalling the release of the body, with Navalny's mother and lawyers getting contradicting information from various institutions where they went in their quest to retrieve the body.

A note handed to Navalny's mother stated that he died at 2:17 p.m. Friday, according to Navalny's spokesperson Kira Yarmysh. Prison officials told his mother when she arrived at the penal colony Saturday that her son had perished from “sudden death syndrome,” Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. Just the day before his death, Navalny was shown joking in court via a video link to court. In mirth, he requested a judge use some of his vast salary to top up his own account.

The late politician's wife Yulia Navalnaya posted on Instagram for the first time since her husband's mysterious death in prison. Sharing a poignant moment with Navalny, her caption simply read, "I Love You". Prior to that, she made a powerful speech at the Munich Security Conference, saying Putin and his allies will not go unpunished for Navalny's death.

Who was Alexei Navalny?

Navalny was one of Putin's fiercest rivals, describing the latter's party as one of "crooks and thieves" which became a rallying cry for his supporters and a major headache for the Kremlin. He also attempted to challenge Putin in Russia's presidential elections, but was barred from contesting due to a prior fraud conviction that he denounced as "politically motivated".

Navalny was born in 1976 in Butyn, a village west of Moscow and grew up in a town about 60 miles from the Russian capital. He graduated with a law degree from Peoples' Friendship University of Russia in Moscow in 1997 and spent a year as a fellow at US' Yale University in 2010. He gained attention by focusing on corruption in Russia’s murky mix of politicians and businesses.

His work broadened from focusing on corruption to wholescale criticism of the political system under Putin, who has led Russia for over two decades. He was a central figure in protests of unprecedented size against dubious national election results and the exclusion of independent candidates. He was tried and convicted for multiple offences over the years, including fraud, contempt of court and parole violation.

In 2020, the anti-corruption activist became seriously ill on a flight to Moscow, plunging into fits of agony. He later fell into a coma and tests confirmed that a nerve agent called novichok was used to poison him. Novichok is a highly toxic agent that was developed by the erstwhile Soviet Union. Navalny was treated in Germany and returned to Russia in 2021 despite concerns, after which he was swiftly arrested.

Since his imprisonment in 2021, Navalny has received three prison sentences, all of which he rejected as politically motivated. Russian authorities said any group tied to Navalny would be classified as an "extremist organisation" and barred from seeking office. The events sparked massive protests that reached Russia’s farthest corners and saw more than 10,000 people detained by police.

(with inputs from agencies)

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