Putin critic dies after 'losing consciousness' at maximum security prison

By Isaac M February 16, 2024

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny – a vocal critic of President Vladimir Putin – has died, according to the country’s prison service.

The jailed dissident, who had campaigned against official corruption and led major anti-Kremlin protests, was 47.

Mr Putin, who is running for re-election in a month, has been informed of his death, according to the state news agency TASS.

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Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny appears on a screen via video link from the IK-6 penal colony in the Vladimir region, during a court hearing to consider an appeal against his sentence in the criminal case on numerous charges, including the creation of an extremist organization, in Moscow, Russia September 26, 2023. REUTERS/Yulia Morozova
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Alexei Navalny was serving a long prison sentence. Pic: Reuters

While the cause of death remains unknown, Western leaders have made clear they hold the Russian regime ultimately responsible.

The prison authorities said Mr Navalny felt unwell following a walk on Friday and lost consciousness at the “Polar Wolf” penal colony about 1,200 miles (1,900 km) northeast of Moscow, and within the Arctic Circle.

Efforts by medical staff to revive him failed, according to the service.

Mr Navalny, who was serving a 19-year sentence on charges of extremism, was moved in December from his former prison in the Vladimir region of central Russia.

His allies criticised the transfer to the maximum security facility in the town of Kharp as yet another attempt to silence Mr Navalny.

The remote region is notorious for long and severe winters.

The IK-3 penal colony.
Pic: Reuters
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Mr Navalny died at the remote ‘Polar Wolf’ penal colony. Pic: Reuters

Mr Navalny had been behind bars since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow after recovering in Germany from nerve agent poisoning, which he blamed on the Kremlin.

Speaking at a security conference in Munich, his wife Yulia Navalnaya, said: “For many years we cannot trust Putin and the Putin government. They always lie.

“But if this is true, I want Putin and everyone around him to know that they will be held accountable for everything they did to our country, to my family. And this day will come very soon.

“I want to call on the international community and all people to unite and defeat this evil.”

His mother Lyudmila Navalnaya is reported to have written on Facebook: “I don’t want to hear any condolences.

“We saw him in prison on the (February) 12, in a meeting.

“He was alive, healthy and happy.”

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Allies said the move to Kharp was another bid to silence Mr Navalny

Nobel Peace Prize winner and campaigning journalist Dmitry Muratov, who is editor-in-chief of Russia’s most famous independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, said: “My sincere belief is that it was the conditions of detention that led to Navalny’s death… His sentence was supplemented by murder.”

Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “It is obvious that he was killed by Putin.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “His 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.”

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The UK’s Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron said: “Putin’s Russia imprisoned him, trumped up charges against him, poisoned him, sent him to an arctic penal colony, and now he’s tragically died.

“We should hold Putin accountable for this. And no one should be in any doubt about the dreadful nature of Putin’s regime in Russia after what has just happened.”

Navalny’s death is a stain on the conscience of the Russian state

It’s appalling.

It’s an absolute tragedy and it’s a stain on the conscience of the Russian state.

Alexei Navalny’s health had been deteriorating… he had been held in solitary confinement for much of the time since he was imprisoned after his return to Russia in January 2021.

But it does seem very shocking that his health should have deteriorated to the extent that he’s dead now – given we have seen him in court videos, we have also had a lot of social media presence from him via his lawyers where he is constantly seen upbeat and cheerful.

Yes, he’s been put through a lot by the prison system but we have not had an indication that he would die this suddenly, so I just wonder if something specific happened to him.

It will come as a huge shock to his supporters.

He was only recently moved to this prison colony up in the very far north of the country, and it is an absolute tragedy for any notion of a free Russia, a Russian democracy, which was all that Mr Navalny devoted his life to since he burst onto the scene in 2012.

He had been a moral voice for Russia from his prison cell, against the war and against the lack of freedoms that he felt for his fellow countrymen. That’s why he returned to Russia after he was poisoned.

I think a lot of people hoped that one day he would leave prison and that he might be a leader for the Russian people – but the fact that he is now dead, only a few weeks before Russia holds an election… I don’t think will play very well for Vladimir Putin.

EU Council President Charles Michel said Mr Navalny had “fought for the values of freedom and democracy”.

He added: “For his ideals, he made the ultimate sacrifice.

“The EU holds the Russian regime for sole responsible for this tragic death.”

Mr Navalny had previously been 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 and a higher court later gave him a suspended sentence.

The day before, Navalny had registered as a candidate for Moscow mayor.

Alexei Navalny is surrounded by journalists on a plane before a flight to Moscow in the Berlin Brandenburg Airport  in 2017.
Pic: AP
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The politician returned to Russia from Germany knowing he faced prison. Pic: AP

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 try and give legitimacy to the mayoral election.

Mr Navalny finished second – an impressive performance against the incumbent who had the backing of Mr Putin’s political machine.

His popularity increased after the prominent politician Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed in 2015 on a bridge near the Kremlin.

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

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