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Navalny, the latest in a trail of mysterious and unsolved deaths of Putin critics

At his last court appearance on Thursday, Alexei Navalny looked frail. He appeared by videoconference, clean shaven and with a haggard face. His deteriorated appearance reflected years in prison plagued by accusations of systematic abuse.

But he was defiant. Imbued with a strong touch of irony and humor, a hallmark of the opposition leader, Navalny joked with journalists and rebuked the authorities. Ironically, he asked the judge for part of his “enormous salary,” “because I am running out of money thanks to his decisions,” Navalni said, referring to the numerous fines that have been imposed on him.

The next day, Russian authorities announced that he had died in a maximum security prison in the far north of the country. His death will be considered the latest chapter in what appears to be a systematic effort by the Kremlin to silence the most prominent thorn in the side of the Russian government.

For years, Navalny was harassed, intimidated and imprisoned as his prominence in Russia grew. In 2017, a doctor told him that he had lost 80% of the vision in one eye after suffering a chemical burn when an attacker threw a green liquid in his face. But those attacks seemed like child’s play when in 2020 he survived an elaborate plot by the FSB (the Russian security service) to poison him with Novichok.

Navalni, poisoned, harassed and imprisoned

Navalny felt unwell shortly after boarding a plane in the Siberian city of Tomsk for a return flight to Moscow. The change in his condition was sudden and violent; he went to the bathroom in the back of the plane. He did not come out again, but collapsed. Video footage shows the crew running towards him. Passengers described howls of pain. The pilot’s unauthorized decision to divert the plane to a nearby city, where he received emergency treatment, apparently saved his life.

The poisoning was followed by a long and uncertain road to recovery in Europe. Step by step, Navalni became stronger. He began to walk and recognize people. German doctors soon confirmed that he had been poisoned with a military nerve agent from the Novichok family.

Navalny later tricked his attackers into admitting to putting poison in their underwear in Tomsk. Asked why he had survived, the FSB office told Navalny it was probably because his plane had made an emergency landing. If he had continued to Moscow – a trip of about three more hours – he probably would have died, the agent said. The agent stressed that his superiors had gotten the dose of poison right.

But although Navalny survived the first attempt on his life, it would mark the beginning of a grim series of harassment that would eventually lead to his death in a prison in the Arctic Circle, near the Ural mountain range. Surrounded by mountains and tundra, with frigid, dark winters giving way to short, mosquito-infested summers, Navalny was virtually isolated from the outside world.

“I’m still in a good mood, as befits a Santa Claus,” he said, referring to his winter clothing of a sheepskin coat and fur hat and the beard he grew during his transfer. But those close to him expressed great concern about the harsh conditions his already fragile body was facing. “This prison will be much worse than the previous one,” warned his spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh.

Navalny seemed to persevere. His last letter, delivered to his lawyers on Valentine’s Day, was dedicated to Yulia. “Honey, between us there are cities, airfield takeoff lights, blue snow storms and thousands of kilometers. But I feel that you are close every second and I love you with all my strength.”

He had prepared a message for the worst case scenario. Shortly before flying to Moscow in January 2021, he was asked what he would say to the Russian people if he were killed: “My message for the situation if I am killed is very simple: do not give up.”

Other deaths of Putin critics

Enemies and critics of Vladimir Putin, president of Russia after almost a quarter of a century in power, have died violently at the height of their conflicts with the Kremlin leader.

Many foreign leaders and sympathizers have described the death of Alexei Navalny as murder, which occurred after the Russian opponent was exiled to a prison in the Arctic Circle, where he was locked in a punishment cell, exposed to the elements and subjected to malnourished conditions. . Several Western authorities have directly blamed the Kremlin for Navalny’s death. Among them, Joe Biden, president of the United States.

Shootings, poisonings and even a plane crash have been other causes of death for Putin’s enemies. In many cases, the deaths are never clarified and continue to be listed as accidents or suicides, leaving open the question about the final number of Putin critics who have been dispatched by the president over the years.

Alexander Litvinenko

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In 2000, poisonings began of former members of the Russian spy services who had defected to the West.

The first time the world learned of Putin’s dark methods was with the case of Alexander Litvinenko. The former FSB agent turned oppositionist died in 2006 after being poisoned in London with polonium 210. The two perpetrators of the murder, linked to the Russian spy service, were accused of poisoning Litvinenko’s tea with a radioactive element.

Shortly before his death, Litvinenko told reporters that the FSB still operated Soviet-era poison laboratories. A British investigation concluded that Litvinenko had been murdered by Russian agents with the likely approval of Putin.

In 2018, agents from the Russian military spy service GRU sent to the English city of Salisbury smeared the Novichok nerve agent on the doorknob of Sergei Skripal’s home.

Skripal had been a military intelligence officer in Russia, where he was convicted of treason and subsequently swapped to the West. Both he and his daughter Yulia almost died from poisoning. Dwan Sturgess, another Salisbury resident, did die from exposure to Novichok, despite having no relationship with the Skripals.

Yevgeny Prigozhin

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In August 2023, the relationship between the former head of the paramilitary group Wagner and Putin was not going through its best moment. He had traveled to Moscow to negotiate with Putin after the aborted mutiny in which his mercenaries took over the city of Rostov and marched towards Moscow.

Prigozhin appeared to have reached a truce with the Kremlin in exchange for evacuating his mercenaries to Belarus and focusing on Wagner’s activities outside Ukraine. But an explosion aboard the Embraer Legacy 600 he was traveling in sent the plane into a spiral, killing Prigozhin, field commander Dmitry Utkin and the eight other people on board.

Putin was full of praise afterwards. “I have known Prigozhin for a long time, since the nineties; “He made some serious mistakes in life, but he also accomplished what was needed for himself, and also what was needed for the greater good when I asked him,” he said. Shortly after, Putin signed the decree forcing Prigozhin’s mercenaries to swear the Russian national flag.

Boris Nemtsov

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One of the most brazen assassinations of a Putin critic is the 2015 shooting of Boris Nemtsov, deputy prime minister of Boris Yeltsin, opposition leader, and possible successor.

An unknown person shot him four times in the back in a place from which the Kremlin could be seen. Although five men of Chechen origin were detained, people close to Nemtsov said the Kremlin was directly involved.

According to a joint investigation by the BBC, the open source journalism organization Bellingcat and the independent Russian investigative journalism organization Insider, the FSB had had its agents follow Nemtsov for almost a year before the murder on the bridge. . The investigation also showed that some of those FSB agents participated in the poisoning of other prominent Kremlin critics.

Anna Politkovskaya

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The journalist who published articles critical of Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov was shot dead in 2006 in the elevator of the building where she lived in Moscow. The editor of Novaya Gazeta was one of the most prominent journalists in the country. Her murder was a blow to Russia’s free media.

Although they arrested five people for the murder, prosecutors admitted they had not discovered who ordered the attack. Putin called for the murderers to be found. He also said that Politkovskaya’s effect on Russian life had been “very minor.”

Unexplained deaths

There have also been prominent Russian businessmen killed in mysterious circumstances, such as apparent suicides or falls from great heights.

In 2013, Boris Berezovsky was found apparently hanged in the bathroom of his Ascot home. A former member of the Kremlin and self-exiled in the United Kingdom in the early 2000s, Berezovsky had become a critic of Putin’s regime. Public investigations and inquiries into his death did not reach any conclusions beyond the official cause of suicide.

Many of Berezovsky’s associates have also died under mysterious circumstances, including Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili. Nikolai Glushkov and Yuri Golubev, founder of the Yukos oil company, were found dead in London.

Translation of Francisco de Zárate

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