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Alexei Navalny’s Death Prompts Serious Questions as Biden Says Putin Is ‘Responsible’

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Jailed Russian opposition leader and President Vladimir Putin critic Alexei Navalny, 47, has died in prison, the Office of the Federal Penitentiary Service of Russia said in a statement Friday. 

"On Feb. 16, 2024, in correctional colony No 3, convict A A Navalny felt unwell after a walk, almost immediately losing consciousness," Sky News’ English translation of the Russian statement read. 

"The institution's medical workers immediately arrived and an emergency medical team was called. All necessary resuscitation measures were carried out, but they did not yield positive results. Emergency medical doctors confirmed the death of the convict.” 

The prison service said in a statement posted on its website later Friday that staff were sent to the institution following Navalny’s “sudden death.” TIME reached out to the press department of the Russian government, the prison service, and the foreign ministry for further information. 

Navalny’s spokesperson Kira Yarmysh stated in a post on X, formerly Twitter, on Saturday that his death occurred on Feb. 16 at 2:17 p.m., according to an official message from Navalny’s mother Lyudmila Navalnaya. Navalny’s lawyer also journeyed to Harp [Kharp, a town in Russia] to investigate.

Following the reports of Navalny’s death, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation posted on its Telegram channel that it has organized a procedural investigation into the matter.

Yarmysh posted on Saturday that Navalny’s lawyers were informed an investigation was concluded and nothing criminal established, but claimed they “literally lie every time.” 

Navalny’s family had demanded the return of his body, which Yarmysh said they had been told would not happen until an investigation was complete. The status of this transfer is currently unclear.

Navalny previously survived what he said was an attempt on his life from nerve agent poisoning that he blamed on the Russian government. Russia, at the time, denied he was poisoned. 

Navalny was arrested upon re-entering Russia after recovering in Germany and has been in prison since 2021. He was serving a total sentence of 30 years on charges of extremism. In 2023, he disappeared for three weeks, prompting fears for his physical safety, only to be discovered in a penal colony above the Arctic Circle.

Independent Russian news outlet SOTA Vision shared a video on Telegram of Navalny appearing virtually in court on Thursday.

Read More: Alexei Navalny Is With Us Forever Now

President Joe Biden addressed reporters in live-streamed remarks on Friday afternoon, saying that he was “both not surprised and outraged by the news.” 

Biden praised Navalny for returning to Russia after being poisoned by a nerve agent, although the opposition leader could have stayed in safety in exile.

“He bravely stood up to the corruption, the violence, and all the bad things that the Putin government was doing,” the President added. “In response, Putin had him poisoned, he had him arrested, he had him prosecuted for fabricated crimes.”

Biden said that “Russian authorities are going to tell their own story. Make no mistake, Putin is responsible for Navalny’s death. What has happened to Navalny is yet more proof of Putin’s brutality. No one should be fooled—not in Russia, not at home, not anywhere in the world.” 

When asked by a reporter whether this was an assassination, Biden responded: “We don’t know exactly what happened, but there is no doubt that the death of Navalny was the consequence of something that Putin and his thugs did.” 

Biden sent his “deepest condolences” to Navalny’s team and supporters, who he said would continue the work, and most of all to Navalny’s family, especially his wife, daughter, and son. 

“His courage will not be forgotten, and I’m sure it will not be the only courage we see coming out of Russia in the near term,” Biden said. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had earlier addressed the reports of Navalny’s demise while at an event in Germany. “Fear of one man only underscores the weakness and rot at the heart of the system that Putin has built,” he said. “Russia is responsible for this. We will be talking to the many other countries concerned about Alexei Navalny, especially if these reports bear out to be true.” 

Meanwhile, other world leaders and figures have spoken out. Former President Barack Obama wrote in an X post that Navalny “was a fearless advocate for his beliefs who died unbroken by the tyranny he opposed.” 

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on X: “This is terrible news. As the fiercest advocate for Russian democracy, Alexei Navalny demonstrated incredible courage throughout his life. My thoughts are with his wife and the people of Russia, for whom this is a huge tragedy.” 

European Council President Charles Michel posted on X that “The E.U. holds the Russian regime for sole [sic] responsible for this tragic death.” 

“Alexei fought for the values of freedom and democracy. For his ideals, he made the ultimate sacrifice,” Michel said. “I extend my deepest condolences to his family. And to those who fight for democracy around the world in the darkest conditions. Fighters die. But the fight for #freedom never ends.” 

Prior to President Biden speaking out on Friday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to some of the criticism from other world figures, posting a quote from spokesperson Maria Zakharova: “The instant reaction of NATO leaders to the news of Alexey Navalny's demise in the form of direct accusations vs. Russia is self-exposing. No forensic medical examination data IS available, yet the West has already voiced its ‘conclusions.’”

To honor Navalny’s death, his supporters across Russia placed flowers in public places, leading to 400 people detained at vigils in multiple cities as of Saturday evening, according to human rights group OVD-Info.

Navalny’s most recent post on Instagram on Valentine’s Day praised his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, saying “I feel you are near me every second, and I love you more and more.” 

Yulia reacted to the news of her husband’s death at the Munich Security Conference on Friday afternoon. "I don't know whether to believe or not this terrible news that we only receive from Russian government sources. For many years we cannot trust Putin and the Putin government,” she said.

“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."

In 2011, Navalny founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation to investigate corruption among government officials. Russia classified it as an extremist organization in 2021. Navalny participated in mass protests against the government in 2011, after which he was arrested and jailed. He continued his anti-corruption campaigning and made an unsuccessful bid to be the Mayor of Moscow in 2013.

In letters written to TIME from prison, published in Jan. 2022, Navalny said that he wanted the U.S. to pressure the Kremlin from without, as he and others did from within, with the goal of creating a free, democratic Russia at peace with its neighbors and the West. 

Navalny had also spoken out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I am proud to be my father’s daughter and walk tall knowing that despite the inhuman conditions, he has been standing up against Putin’s war in Ukraine and calling on the Russian people to do everything in their power to fight it,” his daughter Dasha (Daria) Navalnaya wrote for TIME in 2022.

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