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As morgue retains Navalny’s body, wife says she will lead fight vs. Putin

RIGA, Latvia — Three days after the sudden death of Alexei Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most formidable rival, the location of his body was still unclear on Monday, and his mother was again rebuffed by morgue officials in the Arctic town of Salekhard, 33 miles from the prison colony where he died, Navalny’s press secretary said.

Navalny’s grieving family and political team, who demanded the return of his remains on Saturday, have faced an extended, almost surreal struggle to recover his body, or even to establish its location — with Russian officials seemingly determined to obstruct any independent investigation into the cause of death and delay a funeral.

But as Russian authorities continued to torment Navalny’s family even after his death at age 47, his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, said she would continue her husband’s crusade against the Putin regime. Navalnaya was in Brussels on Monday to address European Union foreign ministers who invited her in a show of solidarity.

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In a video statement posted on YouTube on Monday, Navalnaya proclaimed: “I will continue the work of Alexei Navalny.”

“A free, peaceful, happy Russia, a beautiful Russia of the future, which my husband dreamed of so much — that is what we need,” Navalnaya said. “I want to live in this Russia. I want our children to live in it. I want to build it with you.”

“I should not have been in this position,” Navalnaya, clad in black, added, her voice occasionally trembling. “I should not be recording this video. A different person should be in my place.” She accused Putin of murdering her husband. “Putin did not only murder the person, Alexei Navalny. He wanted, along with him, to kill out hope, our freedom, our future,” she said.

Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, 69, has not been allowed to see his body. She traveled on Saturday to the Polar Wolf prison just above the Arctic Circle in the Yamalo-Nenets region, where he died Friday, and to the local morgue. Prison officials gave her a paper showing a time of death — 2:17 p.m. — but morgue officials denied they had the body.

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After the Russian newspaper in exile Novaya Gazeta Europe reported that Navalny’s body was indeed at the morgue in Salekhard, the regional capital, Lyudmila Navalnaya and Navalny’s lawyers went to the morgue early Monday morning and were again denied access.

“They were not allowed to go in. One of the lawyers was literally pushed out,” Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, who lives outside Russia, posted on X. “When the staff was asked if Alexei’s body was there, they did not answer.”

Members of Navalny’s team have called his death a “murder,” while many world leaders, including President Biden, have said Putin bears responsibility for his death.

President Biden spoke from the White House on reports that Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had died on Feb. 16. (Video: The Washington Post)

Amid fears that the real cause of death may never be known, Yarmysh said officials from Russia’s Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes, had extended their inquiry into the matter.

“They don’t say how long it will take. The cause of death is still ‘unknown.’ They lie, buy time for themselves and do not even hide it,” Yarmysh said.

On Saturday, Lyudmila Navalnaya was initially told by prison officials that her son died of “sudden death syndrome,” with Investigative Committee officials later offering contradictory accounts, stating that the cause was unknown.

Putin, who has long made a point of virtually never uttering Navalny’s name, has made no comment about the death of the activist, who was viewed for more than a decade as the Russian leader’s most charismatic opponent.

Navalny was barred from running in the 2018 Russian presidential election against Putin, after his unexpectedly strong showing in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race.

Vladimir Putin, riding high before Navalny’s death, seems unstoppable

Navalny faced numerous criminal charges, which he and many independent analysts said were trumped up for political retribution, and in August 2020, he was poisoned with a chemical nerve agent. Navalny later teamed up with Bellingcat, the investigative news group, and managed to prove that a team of agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, was responsible for tracking and poisoning him. They even identified many of the agents by name. Navalny called one and tricked him into confessing his role in the failed assassination attempt.

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Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Monday that Putin had made no reaction to Navalny’s death and that the Kremlin was “not engaged” in the matter of the return of his body to his family. Asked whether the Kremlin was concerned about ensuring a thorough investigation into the cause of death, Peskov replied: “Those actions that are stipulated by Russian legislation are being carried out.”

“The investigation into Navalny’s death is underway, and the necessary actions are being carried out,” he said. “But the results have not yet been made public. It is not known about them.”

Peskov also criticized world leaders who said the Russian president was responsible for Navalny’s death, calling it “absolutely unacceptable to make such blatantly boorish statements.”

Tens of thousands of Russians have signed appeals for Navalny’s body to be returned to his family and for them to be granted access to the video-camera and body-camera footage from the prison and its staff.

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More than 50,000 signed a petition organized by OVD-Info, a legal rights group, to the Investigative Committee demanding the return of his body to the family, and more than 20,500 people signed a petition mounted by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and longtime Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov, demanding that the family be granted access to the surveillance footage from the prison.

Independent Russian media outlet Mediazona published video Sunday of a convoy, including two police cars and a prison van, traveling on Friday night from the Polar Wolf prison colony toward Salekhard, possibly carrying Navalny’s body.

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Novaya Gazeta Europe, quoting an ambulance paramedic, reported that Navalny’s body was initially taken to a district hospital in Salekhard, instead of directly to the morgue as is customary in the case of prison deaths. The body was later transferred to the morgue, according to the paramedic.

Natalia Abbakumova and Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.

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