Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny dies in prison, officials say

US

Alexey Navalny, a potent political foe who never shied away from criticizing Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, even from prison, has died in a penal colony, Russian prison authorities said Friday. The Office of the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia for the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous region reported his death, saying he “felt unwell” after going for a walk on Friday and “almost immediately losing consciousness.”

“Medical workers from the institution arrived immediately and an emergency medical team was called. All necessary resuscitation measures were carried out, but did not yield positive results,” the prison authority said in a statement. “Emergency doctors confirmed the death of the convict.”

Navalny’s spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, said her team was unable to confirm the information from the prison service.

“The Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug is spreading the news of Alexey Navalny’s death in IK-3. 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.

Russian opposition politician, anti-corruption campaigner and founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), Alexey Navalny is seen on the screen during a legal appeal against his nine-year prison sentence, in Moscow's City Court, May 24, 2022, in Moscow, Russia. / Credit: Contributor/Getty

Russian opposition politician, anti-corruption campaigner and founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), Alexey Navalny is seen on the screen during a legal appeal against his nine-year prison sentence, in Moscow’s City Court, May 24, 2022, in Moscow, Russia. / Credit: Contributor/Getty

Navalny made an appearance in a Russian court via video link on Thursday, where, according to local media, he appeared cheerful and healthy. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Putin had been briefed about Navalny’s death on Friday, and told journalists “it should be up to the medics to clarify” the cause of death.

Navalny, who emerged as the most outspoken critic of President Vladimir Putin’s government before he was imprisoned in 2021, was initially serving a nine-year sentence in a high-security prison about 150 miles east of Moscow for parole violations, fraud, and contempt of court when he was convicted of promoting “extremism.”

Navalny, 47, and many outside observers have always considered the charges against him politically motivated retaliation for his criticism of Putin and the Kremlin’s policies, both foreign and domestic. He was serving a lengthy sentence on a variety of charges, including promoting “extremism.”  The U.S. State Department also considered his prosecution and imprisonment “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 capital city. In 1997, he graduated with a law degree from Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia in Moscow, and spent a year in the U.S. as a Yale world fellow in 2010.

Around that time, he began his public opposition to the Kremlin. He unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Moscow, denouncing an election he said was rigged by his opponent, a Putin ally.

Navalny described the Russian president’s party as one of “crooks and thieves,” which became a rallying cry for his millions of Twitter and YouTube followers and a thorn in Putin’s side. He attempted to challenge Putin in the country’s 2018 presidential election — but the Kremlin barred him from running due to a prior fraud conviction that Navalny said was politically motivated.

After he was jailed for organizing an “unauthorized protest” in 2019, he suddenly became sick. Russian doctors called it “contact dermatitis,” but Navalny and his personal doctor suspected he had been poisoned. Two years earlier, he had been assaulted with a green dye that left a serious chemical burn in his right eye.

Speaking to “60 Minutes” that year, he wondered why he was still alive.

“Maybe they missed their good timing for it when I was less famous,” he said.

Then, in the summer of 2020, the anti-corruption activist plunged into fits of agony while aboard a flight. His plane was forced to make an emergency landing in Siberia. Initially, Navalny — who had fallen into a coma — was not permitted to leave the country. Russia said it was purely a medical decision, but his team feared the worst.

After 48 hours, the Kremlin allowed him to be flown by air ambulance to a hospital in Berlin known for its experience with victims of poison attacks. There, doctors confirmed he had been poisoned with Novichok, a highly toxic nerve agent said to be 10 times more potent than sarin gas.

After making a dramatic recovery, he said the Russian president himself was to blame, telling Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes” that “I’m sure he’s responsible.”

Nevertheless, in January 2021, Navalny made a bold return home to Russia, which has denied any involvement in his illness. Upon his return, Navalny was detained at a Moscow airport and charged with violating the terms of a previous suspended sentence for failing to check in with prison officials while in Germany. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand his release, according to The Associated Press.

A Russian court remanded him to serve the remaining 32 months in jail, a sentence Navalny once more decried as politically motivated.

“My life isn’t worth two cents, but I will do everything I can so that the law prevails,” he said at the time.

While in prison, he went on a 24-day hunger strike — a protest over a perceived lack of proper medical care. He ended the strike after he said he had been examined by non-prison doctors, though his actions again drew thousands of people onto the streets in support.

In April 2021, his wife Yulia told “60 Minutes” that no matter what came next, “Alexey has already won.”

“He survived this horrible poisoning and returned to Moscow to face those who tried to murder him,” she said. “Putin knows it. His advisers, his friends, his government, everybody in his inner circle know it.”

In March 2022, Navalny was found guilty of fraud and contempt of court and sentenced to nine additional years of detention in a penal colony in a high-security prison. Navalny again decried the charges as baseless and politically motivated.

In August 2023, a court added another 19 years to his sentence. A few months later, Navalny was transferred to a high-security prison with a reputation for abuse — known as the “torture conveyor belt” — which raised further concerns about his safety.

“Without public protection, Alexey will be face to face with those who have already tried to kill him, and nothing will stop them from trying again,” his spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, said after the court’s decision in March. “Therefore, we are now talking not only about Alexey’s freedom, but also about his life.”

Then in December, his supporters said they lost touch with him as he was apparently being moved to another site in Russia’s prison system, heightening concerns about his welfare even more.

Navalny is survived by his wife and two children, Daria and Zakhar.

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