Alexei Navalny's team demands return of his body, mother accuses Russian officials of 'lying'

The body of jailed Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny should be handed over to his family "immediately," his spokesperson Kira Yarmysh said Saturday, as she accused Russian officials of lying in order to delay the process. 

The 47-year-old fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin died on Friday after he felt unwell on a walk at his prison and fell unconscious, according to the Russian prison service. The cause of his death is unclear. 

News of his death sparked outrage, with some Western leaders blaming Putin. 

In the first confirmation from Navalny's team that he had died, Yarmysh said his mother had been notified. 

"Alexey Navalny was murdered. His death occurred on February 16 at 2:17 p.m. local time, according to the official message to Alexey's mother," Yarmysh said in a post on social media. 

"We demand that Alexey Navalny's body be handed over to his family immediately," Yarmysh said. 

The exact location of Navalny's body remains unclear. 

Navalny's mother and lawyer flew to the penal colony where the Kremlin critic was being held on Saturday to receive official confirmation of his death, according to Yarmysh. 

"They waited for two hours, after which a colony employee came out to them and stated that the body of Alexey Navalny was in Salekhard [a nearby town], that investigators from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation had taken it now, and that they were now conducting an investigation on it," Yarmysh said. 

Flowers, candles, and a picture of the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny are seen at a makeshift memorial.
Flowers, candles, and a picture of the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny are seen at a makeshift memorial. Photo credit: Yauhen Yerchak/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Navalny's team wrote on Telegram that the penal colony was closed despite the prison saying it would be open and that Navalny's body was there. 

Later Saturday, Navalny's mother and the lawyer traveled to the town of Salekhard, but when they arrived at the morgue they were told the body wasn't there, according to Navalny's team. 

Russia's Investigative Committee told another Navalny lawyer later on Saturday that the body won't be released to relatives until the investigation is complete, Yarmysh said. 

"The results will supposedly be available next week. It's obvious that they are lying and doing everything they can to avoid handing over the body," she said. 

Adding to the confusion, an employee at the only morgue in Salekhard told Reuters news agency on Saturday that Navalny's body had not arrived. 

Navalny posed one of the most serious threats to Putin during his rule, which has spanned more than two decades. He organized anti-government street protests and used his blog and social media to expose alleged corruption in the Kremlin and in Russian business. 

He was jailed after returning to Russia in 2021 from Germany, where he had been treated after being poisoned with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent. On arrival, Navalnvy was swiftly arrested on charges he dismissed as politically motivated. 

Navalny has been incarcerated ever since, with longstanding concerns for his welfare growing more intense after he was transferred to a penal colony north of the Arctic Circle. 

He spent his last weeks in the Siberian prison, where he said he slept under a newspaper for warmth. 

Western condemnation of the Kremlin was swift and fierce following news of his death on Friday. US President Joe Biden laid the blame for Navalny's death at Putin's feet, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia has "serious questions" to answer. 

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny pictured in this file image from 2018.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny pictured in this file image from 2018. Photo credit: Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Putin had sent a "clear message" following the death of Navalny. 

"After the murder of Alexey Navalny, it is absurd to perceive Putin as a supposedly legitimate head of a Russian state," he said. 

Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya, meanwhile, called for Putin to be brought to justice. 

"I want them to know that they will be punished for what they have done with our country, with my family, and with my husband," she said in emotional remarks that prompted a standing ovation at the MSC on Friday. 

On Valentine's Day, two days before Russian authorities said he died, Navalny posted a message on social media to Yulia. 

"Baby, everything is like in a song with you: there are cities between us, the take-off lights of airfields, blue snowstorms and thousands of kilometers. But I feel that you are near every second, and I love you more and more," he said. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had been informed of the reports and that it is for doctors to determine the cause of Navalny's death. 

Over 100 people have been detained across Russia for attending vigils and rallies following the death of Navalny, according to OVD-Info, a group that monitors arrests. 

People in Moscow brought flowers to the Wall of Grief for the second day in a row on Saturday in memory of Navalny, video from independent Telegram channel SOTA showed. 

About 50 people had gathered at the Wall of Grief for a rally before police began to drive people away from the monument, independent news outlet Mozhem Obyasnit reported.