Top Kremlin critic dies in Arctic prison

Published February 17, 2024
(CLOCKWISE from top left) An Italian woman holds a sign reading  ‘Navalny killed, Putin criminal’ near the Russian embassy in Rome; a man places a candle at the monument to the victims of political repressions in Saint Petersburg following the death of Alexei Navalny; and, a view of the K-3 prison colony in the village of Kharp, where the Russian dissident was serving a 19-year prison sentence.—AFP/Reuters
(CLOCKWISE from top left) An Italian woman holds a sign reading ‘Navalny killed, Putin criminal’ near the Russian embassy in Rome; a man places a candle at the monument to the victims of political repressions in Saint Petersburg following the death of Alexei Navalny; and, a view of the K-3 prison colony in the village of Kharp, where the Russian dissident was serving a 19-year prison sentence.—AFP/Reuters

• Navalny’s wife, Western leaders blame Putin for dissident’s death
• Vigils held around the world as Russian authorities bar protests

MOSCOW: The Kremlin’s most prominent critic, Alexei Navalny, died on Friday in an Arctic prison, Russian authorities said a month before an election poised to extend Vladimir Putin’s hold on power.

Navalny’s death after three years in detention and a poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin deprives the Russian opposition of its figurehead, at time of intense repression and Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

Dissidents and Western officials blamed Putin and his government for the 47-year-old’s death, which followed months of deteriorating health in harsh detention conditions.

Navalny’s wife, Yulia, said she held Putin personally responsible for her husband’s death and called on the international community to “unite and defeat this evil, terrifying regime”.

The Russian leader — who famously never referred to Navalny by name — was on a visit to the Urals on Friday and made no mention of the death in his public appearance.

“Alexei Navalny was tortured and tormented for three years... Murder was added to Alexei Navalny’s sentence,” Russian Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov was quoted as saying by the Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

In video footage of a court hearing from his prison colony on Thursday, Navalny was seen smiling and joking as he addressed the judge by video link.

Russian news agencies reported that medics from a hospital in Russia’s far north spent more than “half an hour” trying to resuscitate Navalny, who reportedly lost consciousness after a walk.

Moscow authorities also warned the public against taking part in any protests as videos shared online showed dozens of Russians laying flowers at monuments to victims of political repression in different Russian cities.

At least one person was detained for holding up a placard that appeared to say “murderers” on it, according to a video posted by the independent Sota Telegram channel.

Global outrage

“Make no mistake, Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death,” US President Joe Biden said in remarks from the White House, adding: “Even in prison he was a powerful voice for the truth”.

The UN human rights office urged the Russian authorities to ensure that a credible investigation into the death of Navalny was carried out.

US Vice President Kamala Harris said his death was “a sign of Putin’s brutality”.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Navalny had “paid for his courage with his life”, while Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said his death was a “huge tragedy” for the Russian people.

The president of Latvia, Edgars Rinkevics said he had been “brutally murdered by the Kremlin” while French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne said his death “reminds us of the reality of Putin’s regime”.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, battling Russian forces for the past two years, said the Kremlin critic had been “killed by Putin”.

On the other hand, Russia’s foreign ministry accused the US of making “sweeping accusations” over who was to blame for the death of prominent Kremlin critic.

“The death of a person is always a tragedy,” it said. “Instead of sweeping accusations, one ought to show restraint and wait for the official results of the forensic medical examination.”

Opposition leader

Navalny, who led street protests for more than a decade, became a household name through his anti-corruption campaigning.

His exposes of official corruption in Putin’s Russia, posted on his YouTube channel racked up millions of views and brought tens of thousands to the streets, despite Russia’s harsh anti-protests laws.

He was jailed in early 2021 after returning to Russia from Germany, where he was recuperating from a near-fatal poisoning attack with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent.

In a string of cases he was sentenced to 19 years in prison on charges widely condemned by independent rights groups and in the West as retribution for his opposition to the Kremlin.

“I’m not afraid and I call on you not to be afraid,” he said in an appeal to supporters as he landed in Moscow, moments before being detained on charges linked to an old fraud conviction.

His 2021 arrest spurred some of the largest demonstrations Russia had seen in decades, and thousands were detained at rallies nationwide calling for his release.

From behind bars, he remained a staunch opponent of Moscow’s full-scale military offensive against Ukraine, and watched on, helplessly, as the Kremlin dismantled his organisation and locked up his allies.

Dozens of his top allies fled into exile and continued to campaign against the offensive on Ukraine and growing repression inside Russia.

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2024

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