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Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has died while in prison, according to a statement from the local department of the Federal Penitentiary Service, triggering outrage and condemnation from world leaders who said the Kremlin critic paid the “ultimate price” for his courage to speak out against the country’s leadership.

“On February 16, 2024, in penal colony No. 3, convict Aleksei Navalny felt unwell after a walk, almost immediately losing consciousness. The medical staff of the institution arrived immediately, and an ambulance team was called,” the statement said.

“All necessary resuscitation measures were carried out, which did not yield positive results. Doctors from the ambulance declared the convict dead. The causes of death are being established.”

Russian state-controlled media also quoted the statement as saying Navalny, 47, had died.

“I don’t know if we should believe the terrible news, the news we get only from official media because for many years we have been in the situation where we cannot believe Putin and his government as they are lying constantly,” his wife, Yulia, said in a brief statement from Germany where she was attending the Munich Security Conference.

“But if it is the truth, Putin and all his staff and everyone around him need to know that they will be punished for what they have done with our patriot, with my family, and with my husband. They will be brought to justice and this day will come soon,” she added.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying President Vladimir Putin had been informed of the report of Navalny’s death but that he has no official information on the cause of death.

“It’s very complicated to confirm the news that comes from a country like Russia,” Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte also told RFE/RL as she attended the Munich Security Conference. “But, if you asked me whether I would be surprised if that’s true, of course I would not, unfortunately, because we know that the regime in the Kremlin is an assassin regime, basically, who would go after their enemies as they understand it, after people with different opinions on the development of Russia and their relations to the rest of the world.”

A day earlier, Navalny did not appear to have any health issues when speaking by video link to a court hearing.

Navalny spokeswoman Kyra Yarmysh said on X, formerly Twitter, that “we don’t have any confirmation of [his death] yet.” She added that Navalny’s lawyer is now flying to the prison.

“Most likely it is true. Navalny was murdered,” said Ivan Zhdanov, blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin. “It is a political murder which will for sure be investigated.”

As the reports reverberated around the country and around the world, some people laid flowers at the buildings where Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) was headquartered before the government shut it down after labeling the organization “extremist.”

Others gathered in front of Russian embassies in countries such as Georgia and Armenia, while vigils were being planned in many cities across Europe.

“If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong. We need to utilize this power, to not give up, to remember we are an enormous power that is being oppressed by these bad people. We don’t realize how strong we actually are. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. So don’t be inactive,” Navalny said at the end of the Oscar-winning documentary that carried his name.

U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan told NPR in an interview just after the news broke that, if confirmed, Navalny’s death would be a “terrible tragedy.”

“The Russian government’s long and sordid history of doing harm to its opponents raises real and obvious questions here…. We are actively seeking confirmation,” he added.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Navalny “paid for his courage with his life,” while French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne said in a post on X that the Kremlin critic’s “death in a penal colony reminds us of the reality of Vladimir Putin’s regime.”

European Council President Charles Michel said Navalny had made the ultimate sacrifice while fighting for the “values of freedom and democracy.”

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski told RFE/RL that Navalny’s only crime was to root out “the corruption [and] the thievery of the current Russian elite” and to have a dream of a better Russia that abides by the rule of law, lives in peace with its neighbors, and invests in its people.

“That proved to be an unforgivable crime,” Sikorski said, speaking with RFE/RL at the Munich Security Conference. He said the Russian state was responsible for Navalny’s life and welfare “and therefore his death is the legal responsibility of the Russian state.”

Navalny, who last month marked the third anniversary of his incarceration on charges widely believed to be politically motivated, nearly died from a poisoning with a Novichok-type nerve agent in 2020, which he blamed on Russian security operatives acting at the behest of Putin.

The man who once blasted Putin as “corrupt, cynical” in an interview with RFE/RL was detained on January 17, 2021, at a Moscow airport upon his arrival from Germany, where he was treated for the poisoning.

He was then handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole during his convalescence abroad. The Kremlin has denied any involvement in Navalny’s poisoning.

In March 2022, Navalny was handed a nine-year prison term on charges of contempt and embezzlement through fraud that he and his supporters have repeatedly rejected as politically motivated.

Later, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his network of regional offices were designated “extremist” organizations and banned after his arrest, which led to another probe against him on extremism charges.

In August last year, a court extended Navalny’s prison term to 19 years and sent him to a harsher “special regime” facility from the maximum-security prison where he was held.

Last month, Navalny was transferred to Polar Wolf, which is a “special regime” prison in Russia’s Arctic region.

Navalny’s death, if confirmed, comes as Putin, who publicly has long refused to actually say Navalny’s name, runs for another term facing no real opposition as those who were expected to be his main challengers — including Navalny — currently are either incarcerated or have fled the country, fearing for their safety.

Russian elections are tightly controlled by the Kremlin and are neither free nor fair but are viewed by the government as necessary to convey a sense of legitimacy.

They are mangled by the exclusion of opposition candidates, voter intimidation, ballot stuffing, and other means of manipulation.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s tight grip on politics, media, law enforcement, and other levers means Putin, who has ruled Russia as president or prime minister since 1999, is certain to win, barring a very big, unexpected development.

Navalny married his wife, Yulia, in 2000. The couple has a son and a daughter.

With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak and Vazha Tavberidze in Munich


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