The Death of Alexei Navalny: Symbol of Oppression?

On February 16th, Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s number one enemy, died in the Arctic penal colony while serving a 19-year sentence for “extremism.”[1]

Alexei Navalny, a Russian lawyer and political activist, made combating corruption a major political goal. In 2007, he joined the Narod (“People”) movement and led several protests against the authoritarianism of President Vladimir Putin.

As a key figure in the opposition, along with his wife Yulia Navalnaya, he protested against electoral fraud following the predictable results of the 2012 elections. In the following years, he was the target of several assassination attempts attributed to Russian secret services. Surviving a poisoning attempt with the nerve agent Novichok in January 2021, he became a symbol of resistance and the Russian people’s struggle for freedom and democracy. Navalny was arrested and sentenced to nineteen years in prison[2]. Since his Anti-Corruption Foundation was attracting more and more members unafraid to speak out despite potential repercussions, combined with Navalny’s increasing renown abroad as a beacon of hope for a democratic future for Russia, he began to be seen as a concrete threat to Putin’s authoritarian regime.

In the following years, he would be regularly transferred from one penal colony to another, before meeting his death in December 2023 in Penal Colony No. 3 in the town of Kharp, known as the “Polar Wolf,” renowned for its brutal detention conditions. “Daylight [was] present for less than two hours a day”, wrote X Maria Pevchikh, a Russian journalist and anticorruption activist who fled abroad.[3]

Since his arrest, he has been subjected to treatments considered inhumane and degrading. Independent experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council have repeatedly called for action to denounce the appalling conditions of Navalny’s detention, which has seen him denied access to adequate medical care even after being transferred to the hospital.[4]
Last August, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, raised concerns about the likely judicial harassment and politicization of the Russian justice system, calling for Navalny’s release. [5]

Mariana Katzarova, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Russia, expressed her concern in December about Navalny’s disappearance. Alice Edwards, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, stated that several independent UN experts, including herself, had urged the Russian government to end the deplorable conditions in which Navalny was being held.[6]

The announcement of the dissident’s death by Russian authorities sparked a wave of outrage, moving the international community. An investigation into the reasons for Navalny’s death and a demand for the immediate release of all political detainees in Russia were demanded. The Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament accuses Vladimir Putin of being responsible for the death of his political opponent.[7]

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of the Russian activist, recently addressed the European Parliament. In her speech, she accused the Russian authorities of orchestrating Navalny’s murder at the request of the Russian president.

Regarding Vladimir Putin, she reportedly said: “[…] You are not dealing with a politician but with a thug with blood on his hands […]”. She continued by stating that in this case, being politically innovative meant fighting organized crime rather than political competition. [8]

At present, Yulia Navalnaya is determined to continue her husband’s fight. On Sunday, March 17, during the Russian presidential elections, she protested, urging voters to cast their ballots with the slogan “Noon against Putin”.[9]

Shortly before his arrest, Navalny confided in Jean Maire, a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, about how the FSB had been tracking him for 4 years in an attempt to poison him. This modus operandi is reminiscent of the Stalinist purges that left even the most distant dissidents vulnerable (such as the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico by a KGB agent).

Navalny was asked why poisoning was chosen as a method of political assassination. He asserted that poisoning serves as a tool to instil terror, acting as a warning to all those who oppose the Putin regime.[10]

Despite opposition to the Russian president both within Russia and abroad, the path towards the “Beautiful Russia for the future” desired by Alexei Navalny remains uncertain, as shown by the results of the recent presidential elections on March 15th and 17th. Indeed, Vladimir Putin was elected with over 87% of the vote.[11]

ASSEDEL takes a stance against any form of persecution of political dissent, seen as an expression of political pluralism, a cardinal principle of the rule of law. ASSEDEL demands that independent investigations be carried out under the control of international institutions to shed light on the circumstances of Alexei Navalny’s death, and that any political prisoner or citizen who participated in protests be immediately and unconditionally released. Lastly, ASSEDEL supports any actor advocating for human rights on Russian soil, whether they be NGOs, press organizations, international bodies, activists and dissidents, or politically engaged individuals addressing this issue.

Fiammetta Bosso

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