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Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny dies, prison service says

Originally Published: 16 FEB 24 06:39 ET

Updated: 16 FEB 24 07:58 ET

By Anna Chernova and Christian Edwards, CNN

(CNN) — Jailed Russian opposition leader and outspoken Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny, who made global headlines when he was poisoned with a nerve agent in 2020, has died aged 47, the Russian prison service said.

Navalny had long been a thorn in the side of President Vladimir Putin, exposing corruption in high places, campaigning against the ruling United Russia party, and orchestrating some of the biggest anti-government protests seen in recent years.

He returned to Russia in 2021 from Germany, where he had been treated after being poisoned with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent.

Upon his return, Navalnvy was swiftly arrested on charges he dismissed as politically motivated. He has been incarcerated ever since, amid longstanding concerns for his welfare that grew more intense in recent weeks after he was transferred to a penal colony north of the Arctic Circle.

Navalny “felt unwell after a walk” and “almost immediately” lost consciousness, the prison service said Friday. It said it was investigating his “sudden death.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin has been informed of the reports and that it is for doctors to determine the cause of Navalny’s death.

“As far as we’re aware, in accordance with all the rules, the prison service is carrying out checks and clarifications,” Peskov told reporters. Asked about reports that the death involved a blood clot, he replied: “I don’t know. Doctors must find it out.”

Navalny’s spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, said his lawyer is traveling to Kharp, where Navalny has been held since December.

“As soon as we have any information, we will report it,” Yarmysh wrote on X.

Navalany’s reporteddeath comes shortly before Russia’s presidential election, set to take place on March 17, where Putin is widely tipped to win a fifth term in a move that would see him retain power until at least 2030.

Navalny was sentenced to 19 years in prison in August, after he was found guilty of creating an extremist community, financing extremist activists and various other crimes. He was already serving sentences of 11-and-a-half years in a maximum security facility on fraud and other charges he denies.

Four months later, his lawyers said they had lost contact with Navalny, who was believed to be imprisoned in a penal colony about 150 miles east of Moscow.

He failed to appear at several scheduled court hearings in December. His legal team said on December 22 that he’d been missing for 17 days.

After filing 680 requests to locate Navalny, his team announced on December 25 that they had “found” him more than a thousand miles away at the IK-3 penal colony in Kharp, known as “Polar Wolf.”

“The conditions there are harsh, with a special regime in the permafrost zone. It is very difficult to get there, and there are no letter delivery systems,” said Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation.

A fierce Putin critic

Navalny posed one of the most serious threats to Putin during his rule, which has spanned more than two decades. He organized anti-government street protests and used his blog and social media to expose alleged corruption in the Kremlin and in Russian business.

His struggle earned him global fame when he was poisoned with Novichok in 2020. Navalny was airlifted from the Siberian city of Omsk and arrived comatose at a hospital in Berlin.

joint investigation by CNN and the group Bellingcat implicated the Russian Security Service (FSB) in Navalny’s poisoning. The investigation found that the FSB toxins team of about six to 10 agents trailed Navalny for more than three years.

Navalny later duped one of the spies, Konstantin Kudryavtsev, into revealing how he was poisoned. He posed as a senior official from Russia’s National Security Council tasked with carrying out an analysis of the poisoning operation, and phoned Kudryavtsev, who provided a detailed account of how the nerve agents was applied to a pair of Navalny’s underpants.

Russia denied involvement in Nalvany’s 2020 poisoning. Putin said at the time that if the Russian security service had wanted to kill Navalny, they “would have finished” the job.

Responding to the news of Navalny’s death, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia has “serious questions” to answer.

“Alexey Navalny has been a strong voice for freedom, for democracy for many years and NATO allies have called for his immediate release for a long time,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Germany ahead of the Munich Security Conference.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan echoed those remarks.

“If it’s confirmed, it is a terrible tragedy, and given the Russian government’s long and sordid history of doing harm to its opponents, it raises real and obvious questions about what happened here,” Sullivan said in an interview with NPR.

President Joe Biden previously told reporters in 2021 that he warned Russian president Vladimir Putin that the consequences would be “devastating for Russia,” if Navalny died in prison during the US-Russia summit in Geneva, Switzerland.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Putin must be held accountable for Navalny’s death.

“It is obvious for me that he was killed,” Zelensky said at a joint news conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. “Putin does not care who dies as long as he stays in his position – and this is why he should lose everything. This is why he should lose the war and he should be held accountable for the crimes that were committed on his behalf.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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