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Russian authorities threaten to bury Navalny in prison colony, aide says

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RIGA, Latvia — Russian authorities sharply increased the pressure on Alexei Navalny’s mother on Friday to agree to bury him in a quiet, private funeral — issuing her a three-hour ultimatum and threatening to inter him on the grounds of the prison colony where he died suddenly last week, a former top aide to the late opposition leader said.

The aide, Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, said Lyudmila Navalnaya refused to bow to the demands by the Investigative Committee, a law enforcement body that pursued Navalny relentlessly while he was alive with repeated criminal prosecutions that independent analysts said were trumped up for political retribution.

Instead, Navalnaya, 69, insisted on her legal right to claim her son’s body from the morgue in the Arctic city of Salekhard, where it has been held for more than a week, and to bring him to Moscow for burial.

This week, she signed his death certificate, in which authorities said Navalny died of “natural causes.” His family and his team say he was murdered and that authorities have withheld the body to cover up the evidence.

President Biden and other leaders have said Russian President Vladimir Putin is “responsible” for Navalny’s death, and, as punishment, the United States on Friday announced a new barrage of sanctions against Russian companies, entities and individuals. On Thursday, Biden met with Navalny’s widow and daughter, Yulia and Daria Navalnaya, in California.

The Russian authorities’ refusal to hand over the body, a stand that seems intended to prevent a public funeral that could draw a mass of political opposition supporters, has drawn shock and condemnation. Nearly 93,000 Russians have signed a petition by the legal rights group OVD-Info, calling on Russian authorities to give the body to the family.

Navalny died suddenly last Friday at the Polar Wolf prison colony in the Yamalo-Nenets region, just above the Arctic Circle. The day before, he had appeared at a court hearing by video link, apparently in good health and good spirits.

Burying Navalny on the grounds of the remote prison would deny his family and supporters the chance to say farewell. It would also prevent his grave from becoming a place where Russians could pay homage to his courage in opposing Putin and campaigning for a free, democratic Russia, which he often called the “beautiful Russia of the future.”

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The new pressure on Navalny’s mother comes after her almost surreal week-long ordeal to recover her son’s body from Investigative Committee officials. She has issued two video appeals, one directly to Putin, which went ignored.

Navalnaya rejected the ultimatum for a secret burial because “they have no authority to decide how and where to bury her son,” said Zhdanov, the former Navalny aide. “She insists that the authorities allow the funeral and memorial service to take place according to custom.”

Navalnaya has demanded that investigators comply with laws that oblige them to hand her the body by Saturday, Zhdanov said. She also filed a demand on Friday to the Investigative Committee to open a criminal case against investigators. Navalny had often demanded that the Investigative Committee investigate itself and chortled at the absurdity.

On Friday, a military holiday in Russia known as Defender of the Fatherland Day, Putin laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the Kremlin wall. The Russian leader, who made a point of virtually never uttering Navalny’s name, has not commented on his death.

On Thursday, Navalnaya said one investigator had threatened that if she did not agree to a secret burial, her son’s body would be allowed to decompose.

Dozens of Russian celebrities, writers, activists, artists, musicians, historians, actors and others recorded videos on Thursday and Friday calling on Putin to hand over Navalny’s body to his mother and allow her to bury him according to Russian tradition.

They included dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and two Nobel laureates: peace prize winner Dmitry Muratov and Belarusian literature prize winner Svetlana Alexievich. Some expressed their grief and pain, others their anger.

Muratov, editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta, said it was “awkward” even to talk about demanding that Navalny’s body be handed over in a nation with Christian values.

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“Let’s just bow down and give the body to Lyudmila Ivanovna and the family — without any conditions,” he said.

“My name is Mikhail Baryshnikov,” the renowned Russian dancer and choreographer said. “I strongly request that the body of the deceased Alexei Navalny be returned to his mother.”

“I want to appeal not only to the Kremlin,” Alexievich said. “I want to ask all people, all of us: Speak up, speak out, say that the body should be given to the mother, given to the wife, to the children. The dead also have rights.”

Dmitry Glukhovsky, the Russian writer of the dystopian cult trilogy of Metro books, called on Putin to give the body of the “innocently murdered” opposition leader to Navalnaya.

“By procrastinating, you only further prove that it was murder,” Glukhovsky said. “By procrastinating, you further prove your weakness. Return the body of the murdered man and let him be given a decent burial.”

And co-founder of the art protest collective Pussy Riot, Nadya Tolokonnikova, said: “You have done the worst thing to her that can happen to a human being: a parent seeing the dead body of her child.”

“Years ago, we were jailed for allegedly trampling on traditional values,” Tolokonnikova said, referring to her arrest for a protest performance in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. “But no one tramples traditional values in Russia more than you, Putin, your officials and your popes who pray for all the murders you commit year after year, day after day.”

“Putin, have a conscience,” she added. “Give the mother her son’s body.”

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The refusal by Russian authorities to allow a public burial recalls the treatment of the families of dissidents who died in prison in Soviet times. The last Soviet dissident to die in jail, Anatoly Marchenko, succumbed at age 48 in 1986 in the Chistopol prison colony in Tatarstan, after a hunger strike to call for the release of all political prisoners.

Soviet authorities refused repeated requests by his widow, Larisa Bogoraz, to bring her husband’s body to Moscow, and he was buried in a village cemetery with Orthodox rites near the prison with his family and five friends present.

His death later prompted the large-scale release of political prisoners by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

When a previous charismatic Russian opposition figure, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead on a bridge near the Kremlin in 2015, his body was laid in an open coffin in the Sakharov Center — named after the late Soviet-era dissident and Nobel peace laureate, Andrei Sakharov — where supporters paid tribute. The center was shuttered last August by a Russian court.

Nemtsov was buried at the Troyekurovskoy cemetery, where Navalnaya also wishes her son to be laid to rest. Navalny wanted to attend Nemtsov’s burial, but he was in jail in one of the many criminal cases against him, and his request to attend was denied.

Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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