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Huge crowds defy Putin to say farewell to Alexi Navalny

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Published: 08:27 GMT, 1 March 2024 | Updated: 13:02 GMT, 1 March 2024

A brief funeral for Alexei Navalny was held in Moscow today – two weeks after Vladimir Putin‘s most feared critic died in an Arctic prison on February 16 – as thousands of his supporters gathered outside.

Pictures showed the opposition leader’s open casket inside a church on the outskirts of the Russian capital, after the coffin was carried past the large crowd of mourners – some holding red flowers – who bravely congregated despite fears of mass arrests.

Under a heavy police presence, a long queue could be seen forming near the church in the southeast of the capital, with reports saying thousands were in attendance.

One person said: ‘I feel this is a funeral for the Russia that might have been.’ 

As the coffin was carried out of a black hearse and into the church, loud chants of ‘Navalny, Navalny!’ rang out around the square outside.

The dissident’s parents followed the coffin inside, and were pictured sitting by his open casket. His body could be seen dressed in a suit, covered in flowers.

It left the Russian Orthodox church again at around 12pm GMT – less than an hour after it entered – on its way to be buried at a nearby cemetery. 

As the coffin was driven away, video showed people chanted again: ‘Russia without Putin’, ‘Putin is a killer’ and ‘We won’t forget’.

Pictures showed the opposition leader’s open casket inside a church on the outskirts of the Russian capital, after it was carried past a large crowd of mourners – some holding red flowers – who bravely gathered despite fears of mass arrests

Relatives and friends pay their last respects at the coffin of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God Soothe My Sorrows, March 1

The funeral for Alexei Navalny got underway today –  two weeks after the opposition leader died in an Arctic prison on February 16. Pictured: Navalny’s coffin arrives at the church on the outskirts of Moscow as thousands of mourners watched on from the streets outside

Mourners, some carrying red flowers (pictured), bravely gathered outside the church on the city’s outskirts – despite fears police are preparing for mass arrests. One among thousands said: ‘I feel this is a funeral for the Russia that might have been’

Moscow police launched a massive security clampdown this morning outside the church and the nearby cemetery where he will be buried, with most mourners prevented from getting to the church by police and iron fences

A hearse, which reportedly transports a coffin with the body of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, is seen in this photo parked outside the Soothe My Sorrows church before the funeral service and farewell ceremony in Moscow, March 1

The crowd outside the church on Friday was seen in live broadcasts of the event. Reports said thousands of people gathered on the streets outside. Many chanted Navalny’s name

Navalny’s parents – Anatoly Navalny, right, and Lyudmila Navalnaya – were seen entering the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God Soothe My Sorrows, in Moscow

Moscow police are seen standing guard outside the church in Moscow today

Moscow police began a massive security clampdown ahead of the funeral of Alexei Navalny

Foreign diplomats, including French Ambassador to Russia Pierre Levy and US Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy, wait near the Soothe My Sorrows church before a funeral service and a farewell ceremony for Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny

Mourners gather in front of the Mother of God Quench My Sorrows church during a funeral service for late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Moscow’s district of Maryino

A view of a grave where Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny due to be buried at the Borisovskoye Cemetery, in Moscow, March 1

Moscow police launched a massive security clampdown this morning.

While attendee details were not known, the French, German and US ambassadors were in the crowd, as were some of Russia’s last free independent politicians. 

Navalny’s team accuse Putin of murdering his top critic, and of obstructing their efforts to give the dissident a dignified send off – saying several funeral parlours and hearse companies had refused to take their booking following threats.

What’s more, it has also been warned that male mourners could be rounded up at the funeral and sent to fight on the front lines of Ukraine, where Putin is waging a brutal war that last week entered its second year.

The Kremlin, which has denied involvement in Navalny’s death, warned against ‘unauthorised’ protests around the funeral, and the authorities this morning appeared to be treating the funeral and burial as a major military operation.

But despite fears of mass arrests, pictures from outside the Mother of God Quench My Sorrows church showed thousands of Navalny’s supporters gathering.

They were held back by long stretches of iron fences erected around the church, while metal detectors were also set up at key entry points. These appeared to be in place to limit access to the Navalny supporters seeking to say their final farewell.

Other pictures from the cemetery where Navalny is set to be buried appeared to show gravediggers at work, as crowds continued to gather.

One woman who flew 900 miles from Perm to Moscow said: ‘I had high hopes for this man, he was very strong, very brave.

‘I would like to see people today who also support him. The pain in my heart is such that I cannot describe it – so hard,’ she added.

Another woman said: ‘For us it was hope for a brighter future, not for North Korea. This is the only thing we can do now is to pay tribute to the memory, keep it.

‘A person lives as long as we remember him. We need to remember why he got there. For us, for everyone. And of course continue, don’t give up, as he asked.’

‘People like him shouldn’t be dying: honest and principled, willing to sacrifice themselves,’ said one mourner, Anna Stepanova, outside the church.

‘What are they afraid of? Why so many cars?’ Stepanova asked. ‘They are so afraid themselves. The people who came here, they are not scared. Alexei wasn’t either.’

In line with Orthodox practices, the body of Navalny – who had embraced Christianity – will be displayed in an open casket.

Two hours later, the burial is set to take place at the Borisovo cemetery – one mile from the church and a short walk from the banks of the river Moskva.

Russian authorities did not comment ahead of time on how they will handle the event, which could turn into an embarrassing show of support for Navalny.

As Navalny’s body set out on his last journey to his funeral, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: ‘The Kremlin has nothing to say to Navalny’s relatives on the day of his funeral.’ 

Navalny associate Leonid Volkov said Putin would one day answer in court for the death of the politician.

‘Peskov said that Putin has nothing to say to Alexei Navalny’s family,’ he said. ‘I want to dare to say that Alexei’s family doesn’t need a single word from Vladimir Putin.

‘All the words we would need from Putin are those he’ll say before the judge.’

A grave – reportedly where Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny will be buried – is seen during preparations for his funeral at the Borisovskoye cemetery in Moscow today

Pictured: A grave at the Borisovo cemetery ahead of the burial of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

Despite the first of mass arrests, early pictures from outside the Mother of God Quench My Sorrows church – where a religious service will be held at 2pm (1100 GMT) – showed crowds of mourners gathering, some carrying red flowers

A Police officer guards as people gather near the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God Soothe My Sorrows, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 1, 2024

Early pictures from the outskirts of the Russian capital showed long stretches of iron fences being erected around the Mother of God Quench My Sorrows church (pictured), where a religious service will be held at 2pm (1100 GMT)

The authorities this morning appeared to be treating the funeral and burial as a major military operation against the pro-democracy Navalny supporters

A mound of earth is seen at the cemetery where Navalny is set to be buried today

Grave diggers were seen working at the cemetery this morning

The funeral of the opposition leader will take place two weeks after he died in an Arctic prison on February 16, amid pressures denounced by his team who accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin (pictured today) of murdering his top critic behind bars

Russian authorities have said Navalny (pictured in 2019) died of ‘natural causes’ but his team and some Western leaders have accused Putin of being directly responsible

Iron fences are seen being set up around the church on the outskirts of Moscow this morning

A Police officer guards on a roof of an apartment building near the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God Soothe My Sorrows, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 1, 2024

A police truck is seen near the church on the outskirts of Moscow this morning

A woman carries flowers outside the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God, ahead of the upcoming funeral of late Russian opposition leader Navalny, this morning. Police can be seen in the background by the entrance to the church grounds

Mourners gather in front of the Mother of God Quench My Sorrows church ahead of a funeral service for late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Moscow, on March 1, 2024

US Ambassador to Russia Lynne Tracy arrives at the church before a funeral service and a farewell ceremony for Navalny in Moscow, Russia, March 1

A man carrying a wreath passes through a metal detector security gate at the Borisovo cemetery ahead of the burial of Navalny

Several police trucks were filmed driving at speed down a main highway, suggesting authorities in the city are expecting to make arrests, and buses with armed police were in the vicinity of the church and the separate cemetery.

News site Ostorozhno Novosti reported that the Russian army was present, and surveillance cameras were in use, and there were reports of smartphone signals being disrupted close to the funeral location.

Checkpoints and cordons were already set up around the church.

Long before the funeral began some 40 police vehicles – including buses – were at Maryino metro station close to the site. Police said they were checking passports of those in the area to ‘prevent terrorist operations’.

Despite the fears of arrests, Navalny’s team urged his backers to seek to attend today’s events.

But it was not immediately clear who among Navalny’s family or allies would attend the funeral, with many of his associates in exile abroad due to fear of prosecution in Russia. Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his regional offices were designated as ‘extremist organizations’ by the Russian government in 2021. 

The politician’s team said the funeral would be streamed live on Navalny’s YouTube channel, and Navalny associate Ivan Zhdanov denied that only family mourners would be permitted to attend.

‘There was some rumour in the media that only relatives would be allowed to attend the funeral service,’ he said. ‘We do not have any such information.

‘All we know is that the temple will be open to everyone.’

Two opposition politicians with anti-war views who were barred from standing in this month’s Russian president election both intended to attend the funeral.

Boris Nadezhdin and Ekaterina Duntsova said they would be there.

‘Now it’s quite difficult to explain the reasons why I think it’s important to participate in farewell to Navalny and not end up under investigation,’ said Duntsova.

‘Many of my fellow deputies and activists knew Alexei.

‘He is an important person in the history of Russian politics.’

Pro-democracy outlets warned that mass detentions are expected simply for seeking to pay respects to a widely-respected political figure who died aged 47 in suspicious circumstances.

Ivan Pavlov, a human rights activist, warned: ‘If such [warnings over arrests] have to be made, then definitely something wrong is happening in the country.

‘This event, to put it mildly, will be unwanted by the officials.’

There are also fears that pro-Navalny male supporters could be detained and rapidly sent to fight in Putin’s war against Ukraine. 

Politician Ruslan Shaveddinov, a former Navalny press secretary, said: ‘The Moscow authorities and the Kremlin are trying to intimidate everyone who wants to come.

‘I don’t want to shout, urging everyone to come, because we are talking about a funeral. And we treat this as organising the farewell and funeral of Alexei Navalny.’

He revealed some activists had been warned not to attend on the eve of the funeral.

‘We treat this as a tool of intimidation,’ he said. ‘Of course, they want to create horror so that everyone will be scared.

‘But this is the farewell and funeral of Alexei Navalny, this is not a rally, not a political procession. This is an opportunity for a huge number of people for whom Alexei meant something, for whom he was important, to come and say goodbye to him.’

In line with Orthodox practices, the body of Navalny – who had embraced Christianity – will be displayed in an open casket at the church

Two hours after the church service, the burial is set to take place at the Borisovo cemetery (pictured as security forces prepare the site), a short walk from the banks of the river Moskva

Navalny was seen for the last time on February 15 (pictured), the day before he died

But Navalny’s supporters have cause for concern: 400 mourners have been detained at memorials for Navalny since his death, rights organisation OVD-Info said.

The dissident’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, said on Wednesday that she feared the funeral could be disrupted by further arrests.

‘I’m not sure yet whether it will be peaceful or whether the police will arrest those who have come to say goodbye to my husband,’ Navalnaya told the European Parliament. She has directly blamed Putin for his death.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has criticised statements by Navalny’s wife and Western leaders blaming the Russian leader for the death as ‘vulgar’.

Putin, who famously never said Navalny’s name in public, has not commented on the death, which sparked outrage among Western leaders and the Russian opposition. 

Russian authorities said Navalny died of ‘natural causes’ but his team and some Western leaders have accused Putin of being directly responsible. 

Navalny had shot to prominence through his anti-corruption campaigning, exposing what he said was rampant graft at the top of Putin’s administration.

He was arrested in January 2021 when he returned to Russia after being treated in Germany for a poisoning attack.

‘Alexei was tortured for three years,’ Navalnaya told lawmakers in Brussels.

‘He was starved in a tiny stone cell, cut off from the outside world and denied visits, phone calls, and then even letters.’

‘And then they killed him. Even after that, they abused his body,’ she said.

Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, spent eight days trying to get authorities to release the body following his death at Penal Colony No. 3 in the town of Kharp, in the Yamalo-Nenets region about 1,200 miles northeast of Moscow. 

His team believed the delay to be a bid to cover up responsibility for his death. 

His family and his team have also accused authorities of trying to prevent him from having a dignified public burial due to fears it could turn into a flashpoint for dissent.

Authorities originally said they couldn’t turn over the body because they needed to conduct post-mortem tests. Navalnaya, 69, made a video appeal to President Vladimir Putin to release the body so she could bury her son with dignity. 

The team alleged local investigators had threatened to bury him on the prison grounds if his mother did not agree to a ‘secret’ funeral.

Once the body was released, allies struggled to find a funeral place that would agree to hold the ceremony. And on Thursday they said hearse drivers were refusing to take the body from the morgue.

‘What a disgrace. Now the hearse drivers refuse to take Alexei from the morgue,’ said Ivan Zhdanov, an exiled ally who managed Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said funeral directors had received threatening calls from ‘unknown people’ warning them not to transport Navalny’s body anywhere.

The dissident’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, said on Wednesday that she feared the funeral could be disrupted by further arrests

Navalny’s supporters have cause for concern: 400 mourners have been detained at memorials for Navalny since his death, rights organisation OVD-Info said

And a civil ceremony allowing the general public to pay their respects to the body – common in Russia – has not been allowed.

Navalnaya said the family ‘did not want a special treatment – just to give people the chance to say goodbye’.

She has vowed to continue his life’s work.

‘The most important thing we can do for Alexei and for ourselves is to continue to fight more desperately, more fiercely than before,’ she said.

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