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Navalny team, confirming death, demands authorities return body to family

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RIGA, Latvia — A spokeswoman for Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died suddenly in an Arctic prison, demanded on Saturday that authorities hand over his body, as his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, and lawyers struggled fruitlessly with officials to reclaim his remains.

Russia’s Investigative Committee refused a lawyer’s demand to surrender the body until an official medical investigation was complete, according to the spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh.

“We demand that Alexei Navalny’s body be handed over to his family immediately,” Yarmysh wrote in a statement on Saturday.

Russia’s leading activist against President Vladimir Putin died in a Russian prison colony on Feb. 16. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Navalnaya, who had visited her son just on Monday in the harsh prison camp known as “Polar Wolf” in Kharp, a town in the far north region of Yamalo-Nenets, returned there Saturday morning with Navalny’s lawyer and was given documentation showing his death occurred at 2:17 p.m. local time on Friday.

Navalnaya, 69, faced a grueling and absurd ordeal after she flew into the town of Salekhard early Saturday and drove 33 miles to the Kharp prison, where she was kept waiting two hours before prison officials told her that Navalny died of “sudden death syndrome,” according to Yarmysh. They told Navalnaya that her son’s body was taken to the morgue in Salekhard, assuring her the facility was open and operating, Yarmysh said.

But when Navalnaya and a lawyer arrived, the morgue was closed.

They phoned a number on the door, only to be told his body was not there, Yarmysh said.

Yarmysh said a second Navalny lawyer visited the Investigative Committee in Salekhard, where officials had a different story: that Navalny’s body was undergoing a medical investigation to establish the cause of death. They refused to hand over the body until the official investigation is carried out, stating that the results would be released next week, she said.

“Only an hour ago, the lawyers were informed that the investigation had been concluded and that something criminal had not been established,” Yarmysh posted on Twitter shortly afterward. “They literally lie every time, driving us around in circles and covering their tracks.”

The removal of Navalny’s body from the prison for a potential autopsy by Russian authorities indicates that the true cause of his death may never be known.

Alexei Navalny’s wife and two children learned of his death from afar

After Navalny was poisoned with a banned nerve agent in August 2020, he and his supporters fought unsuccessfully for the return of the clothing he was wearing when he was poisoned, hoping to discover eence. During an investigation led by the Bellingcat, the investigative journalism group, Navalny later tricked an agent of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, into admitting that he had been sent to clean any traces of eence from Navalny’s underwear, which was in the custody of local authorities.

Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, died on Feb. 16. People all around the world paid tribute to the Kremlin critic. (Video: HyoJung Kim/The Washington Post)

Lyudmila Navalnaya’s struggle to recover her son’s body Saturday echoes the stark bureaucratic cruelty when Russian security officials obstructed his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, from evacuating Navalny from the Siberian hospital after his poisoning in 2020.

He was only flown to Germany two days later, after Yulia issued a personal appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who granted the request. Navalny was taken to a hospital in Berlin, where he eventually recovered and returned to Moscow in 2021. He was then immediately arrested, imprisoned and given several hefty sentences, totaling 30 years, in cases that he and international rights groups described as trumped up for political retribution.

Yulia Navalnaya and leaders of Navalny’s team initially said that they did not trust statements by Russian authorities on Friday that he had died. But any lingering uncertainty was dispelled Saturday.

Ivan Zhdanov, a leader of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which is now based in Vilnius, Lithuania, issued a statement saying: “That’s it. It’s over. Alexei Navalny has been assassinated.”

As recently as Thursday, Navalny was seen on attending a court hearing, in which he seemed in good health and good spirits, and was even joking with court officials.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was seen via link from his prison colony on Feb. 15, the day before he died. (Video: Reuters)

Navalny embodied the resistance to Putin’s regime more than any other Russian opposition figure, and in the numbing aftermath of his death, police arrested dozens of Russians who laid flowers at spontaneous memorials. Late Friday, security officials with trash bags removed piles of flowers.

For Putin nemesis Alexei Navalny, long-feared death arrives in Arctic prison

In Moscow at the “Wall of Sorrow,” a memorial to victims of political repressions, riot police overpowered dozens of people who tried to lay flowers in memory of Navalny and dragged them to a nearby phalanx of security vehicles.

Muscovites left flowers at other highly symbolic locations, including the Solovetsky Stone, a memorial to victims of the Soviet gulag and political repressions in Lubyanka Square, in front of the headquarters of the FSB, previously the KGB.

And they placed flowers at a bridge near the Kremlin where another of Putin’s opposition rivals, Boris Nemtsov, was shot to death on Feb. 27, 2015.

With the political opposition crushed inside of Russia and the opposition-in-exile died, the loss of Navalny’s powerful, charismatic voice raised doubts about its future, just a month before Putin’s certain reelection in a presidential contest that excludes any significant opponent.

Navalny’s death was seen as a watershed in Russia signaling that no dissent will be tolerated, as Putin shifts toward a highly centralized, deeply repressive totalitarian regime.

Navalny’s health in harsh prison system was major concern before death

An opposition figure and member of Navalny’s team in exile, Vladimir Milov, said he believed that Navalny’s death was simply murder. “Because they can do anything they want now,” Milov said. “They can withhold the body indefinitely.”

Milov said there could now be no independent investigation to establish the cause of death.

Milov, who tried to convince Navalny not to return to Russia after his poisoning, expressed fury at the members of his team who encouraged him to do so, on the logic that he could not be a relevant opposition figure in exile.

“The idiotic idea that if you go into exile, that’s it, you lose your political capital, you lose your influence and so on — everyone who talks like that and spreads this idea is an accomplice to murder,” he said bitterly. “I want you to stay awake for the rest of your lives.”

OVD-Info, a Russian legal rights group that proes legal assistance to detainees, said that at least 340 people had been arrested while paying tribute to Navalny at memorial sites in more than 30 cities and towns, 230 of whom were arrested on Saturday. The largest number of arrests was in St. Petersburg, where at least 143 people were detained.

Alexander Polupan, a doctor who treated Navalny after his 2020 poisoning by a nerve agent, said in an interview Friday that an autopsy would be required to establish how he died.

Asked about the possibility that Navalny may have been poisoned again, he said determining this would require a chemical and toxicological examination.

“Right now we don’t have any medical data to support either version, was it violent death or natural death,” Polupan said

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