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Who was Alexei Navalny? All you need to know about the deceased Russian opposition leader

The Kremlin said it had no information on the cause of Navalny's death and Putin has been informed of the matter. Navalny rose to prominence after he publicly criticised the Kremlin and alleged corruption within Putin's administration, describing the President's party as one of "crooks and thieves".

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Moscow Updated on: February 16, 2024 22:40 IST
Russia, Alexei Navalny death, Who is Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin
Image Source : REUTERS (FILE) Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Moscow: Alexei Navalny, one of the fiercest critics of Russia's President Vladimir Putin, has died in jail, according to Russian prison authorities on Friday. The 47-year-old opposition leader rose to prominence over a decade ago by publicly criticising Putin and accusing his government of wide-scale corruption, and was serving a 30-year prison sentence.

The Federal Penitentiary Service of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, where he was serving his sentence, said Navalny felt unwell after a walk at a penal colony, after which he lost unconsciousness almost immediately. The medical staff of the institution and an ambulance tried to resuscitate him but to no avail. Navalny is survived by his wife and two children, Daria and Zakhar.

The Kremlin said it had no information on the cause of Navalny's death and Putin has been informed of the matter. Navalny's spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, said her team was unable to confirm the report. "We have no confirmation of this yet. Alexey's lawyer is currently on his way to Kharp. As soon as we have some information, we will report on it," Yarmysh said on social media.

Who is Alexei Navalny?

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 and started by purchasing a stake in Russian oil and gas companies to become an activist shareholder and push for transparency.

Around that time, he began his public opposition to the Kremlin and ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Moscow in 2013, alleging the election was rigged by his opponent, who was an ally of Putin. However, Navalny received 27 per cent votes, an unexpectedly impressive performance against the incumbent who had the backing of Putin’s political machine  

Navalny described Putin'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".

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

According to the Guardian, Navalny identified a palace built on the Black Sea for Putin’s personal use, mansions and yachts used by the ex-president Dmitry Medvedev, and a sex worker who linked a top foreign policy official with a well-known oligarch. Due to Navalny's efforts, Medvedev was forced to disclose the scale of corruption - around $31 billion was being embezzled from the state procurement system annually.

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.

Navalny has been convicted of several offences. In 2013, he was found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to five years imprisonment, but the sentence was later suspended. He received a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence on fraud charges. The Russian justice ministry clamped down hard on Navalny's party and barred it from contesting elections just as his popularity rose. Navalny denounced all convictions as politically motivated.

Poisoning and imprisonment

Navalny was serving a jail sentence in 2019 for involvement in an election protest, when he was taken to the hospital with an illness that authorities said was an allergic reaction, but some doctors said it appeared to be poisoning. The next year, the 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.

After being banned from leaving the country, the Kremlin allowed Navalny to be flown to Berlin for treatment. Navalny blamed Putin for trying to kill him, but the Kremlin denied any involvement in the incident. The poisoning sparked international outrage and worsened relations between Russia and the West, which had introduced sanctions on top Russian officials close to Putin.

Notably, traces of Novichok were also found in the 2018 British case of the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The attack on Navalny represented one in a long series of assassination attempts against Putin's critics, and Navalny personally alleged the Federal Security Service (FSB) for carrying out the poisoning.

Despite concerns for his safety, the anti-corruption activist decided to return to Russia in 2021. However, he was arrested on a parole violation charge and sentenced to his first of several jail terms. While in prison, Navalny announced a hunger strike while thousands of his supporters launched protests against his imprisonment. 

Russian authorities acted swiftly, saying that 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.

New charges against Navalny

Since his imprisonment in 2021, Navalny has received three prison sentences, all of which he rejected as politically motivated. 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.

When Putin sent troops to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Navalny strongly condemned the war in social media posts from prison and during his court appearances. He was sentenced to an additional nine-year term for fraud and contempt of court a month after the Ukraine war began. In August, Navalny was convicted and sentenced to 19 years by a Russian court on extremism charges. All of these charges have been decried by his supporters.

After the verdict, Navalny said he understands that he’s “serving a life sentence, which is measured by the length of my life or the length of life of this regime.” Navalny was moved in December from a prison in central Russia to a “special regime” penal colony — the highest security level of prisons in the country — above the Arctic Circle.

Shortly after Navalny’s death was reported, the Russian SOTA social media channel shared images of the opposition politician reportedly in court yesterday. In the footage, Navalny was seen standing up and laughing and joking with the judge via video link.

(with inputs from agencies)

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