Alexei Navalny dead

When Alexei Navalny returned to Russia after the Kremlin had him poisoned with novichok, he took a bet that Vladimir Putin would not dare to kill the man who was on the blackest of black lists. Today Navalny lost that bet.

I met Navalny twice, once in Strasbourg and once in Moscow, and had had a long Zoom conversation with him. He was a truly extraordinary man: impossibly brave, charismatic, pig-headed, funny, great. To me, he symbolised the idea of a Russia without fascism, free and democratic. Von Stauffenberg dared to try to kill Hitler but he also did something else, he kept the idea of another Germany alive in 1944. Navalny dared to stand up to Putin and kept the idea of another Russia alive in 2024.

He could be extremely annoying. The first time we met was at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg where his lawyers were suing Russia from stopping him standing against Putin. Hearing concluded, he had ten minutes to talk to me for a BBC Panorama we were making about him called Taking On Putin. Cameraman Seamas McCracken was fixing mikes on lapels when I explained that Seamas was from Northern Ireland. Seamas stopped work. Navalny was greatly amused as precious seconds slipped away while I apologised and said that Seamas was from the north of Ireland. Only when Seamas was happy did the interview happen. But what sticks in the mind was not my Irish pal sticking up for his rights but Navalny’s amusement at my difficulty.

In Moscow, he and his supporters were under continuing attack. One of his team had been hit over the head with an iron bar, another beaten black and blue by silent thugs. And yet what you got was the real thing: sardonic, amused Navalny, punching words out at the little man in the Kremlin. Is Russia a police state?, I asked him. “Absolutely,” he replied.

He started out as a lawyer representing clients who had been wronged by Russia’s corruption engine. For a time around 2008, he dallied with the far-right, calling Chechens “cockroaches” and, later, upsetting Ukrainians by saying that Crimea is Russian. It is Ukrainian. But then he dumped that dark nonsense and set out the case for a liberal, democratic Russia.

His big moment came in 2012 when Putin switched his patsy, Dmitry Medvedev, out of the Kremlin so he could get back in again and another Russia hit the streets in their hundreds of thousands. Charismatic, funny, bitter, Navalny called Putin’s political vehicle “The Party of Crooks and Thieves” and he became a kind of rock star. One time, the police arrested him, twisting his arm behind his back so he howled in pain, before locking him in a police van. That video was seen millions of times.

Navalny got going, making brilliant videos detailing corruption in Russia. Two stand out: Putin’s Palace, which got more than a hundred million views on YouTube, setting out in fine details how his oligarchs paid for a naff palace by the Black Sea with golden toilet roll holders, and a second on his poisoning. In it, Navalny had the balls to pretend being a Kremlin high-up and called one of the poisoners. The hapless goon coughed up to the mechanism of assassination, that they lined the seams of his underpants with novichok.

He went back to Russia daring Putin to murder him. A show-trial followed, the only thing that was real was the moment when Navalny, from his glass-walled dock, cradled his hands into the shape of a heart for his wife, Yulia.

I hope that Russia will wake up from its zombie state, that Navalny will get his revenge from beyond the grave but I doubt it. Still, he lost his life standing up for another Russia and his memory will shine in history.

Farewell, my fond and foolish friend.

Love in the time of dissent

This week marked another Valentine’s Day and the world was abuzz with expressions of love and affection. Yet, amidst the sea of roses and chocolates, there lies a stark reality for many: the agony of separation from loved ones. For dissidents around the globe, this pain is not merely a matter of distance; it is the consequence of standing against tyranny - for speaking truth to power.

As CEO of Index on Censorship, I have witnessed the bravery of individuals who dare to challenge oppression, knowing full well the risks they face. We need to remember this every day - but this week, Valentine's week, there is a responsibility on all of us to recognise their sacrifice and the profound commitment that drives them to advocate for change and to continue their struggle against tyrants - in spite of the personal cost for them and their loved ones.

One example is Russian activist and thorn-in-Putin's-side Alexei Navalny, whose death in a penal colony has been reported today. In 2020, Navalny fell into a coma after suspected poisoning with the nerve agent novichok and was taken to Germany for treatment. The poisoning was widely believed to have been ordered by Putin and suspicion about his death has immediately turned to the Russian president.

To the surprise of many, in 2021 Navalny returned to Russia with his wife, Yulia Navalnaya. He was immediately arrested on a variety of trumped-up charges. At the time of his death, he was serving a 19-year sentence. Navalny and his wife have been apart ever since their return to Russia, with her husband sent to a series of penal colonies, each more hideous than the last. Appearing at the 2023 Oscars when the Navalny documentary about her husband won the best documentary award, Navalnaya said in an emotional speech "Alexei, I’m dreaming of the day when you will be free and our country will be free. Stay strong, my love."

Love was what sustained them during their enforced separation. In what turned out to be his last post on Instagram, Navalny wrote: "Babe, we have everything like in a song: cities between us, airport runway lights, blue blizzards and thousands of kilometres. But I feel you are near me every second, and I love you more and more ❤️".
 
 

Another example is Andrei Aliaksandrau and his partner Irina Zlobina. Andrei, a former member of the Index team and a Belarusian journalist and human rights defender, has dedicated his life to exposing the truth and holding those in power accountable. However, his commitment to freedom of expression has come at a personal great cost. In November 2020, Andrei was arrested by Belarusian authorities in a crackdown on dissent following the disputed presidential election. Since then, he has been detained, facing trumped-up charges and enduring harsh conditions behind bars.

Irina too was arrested and sentenced on similar charges. Now they find themselves separated by Lukashenka in different prisons in Belarus.

For Andrei and Irina, Valentine's Day serves as a painful reminder of their separation. While the world celebrates love, they are forced to endure the anguish of being torn apart by injustice.

These are just two examples among thousands of others. A reminder that there are many different manifestations of love is Tamara Davila, whose heartbreaking ordeal underscores the intersection of love and dissent in the face of authoritarian oppression. Deported from Nicaragua to the United States for daring to speak out against the government, Tamara's enforced separation from her daughter and wider family serves as a chilling example of how the Nicaraguan authorities wield love as a weapon against dissenters. Despite the government's attempts to silence her, Tamara's enduring love for her family fuels her resolve to continue fighting for justice and freedom, demonstrating the profound power of love in the face of adversity. Her story serves as a stark reminder that even in the darkest of times, love remains an unyielding force that empowers individuals to stand up for what is right, no matter the cost.

These stories encapsulate the intersection of love and dissent—a powerful force that transcends borders and inspires change. Despite the physical distance separating dissidents and their partners and families, their love fuels their resilience, reminding us all of the inherent connection between personal relationships and the broader struggle for human rights.

This Valentine's week, let us honour the courage of individuals like Alexei and Yulia, Andrei and Irina, and Tamara and her daughter by amplifying their voices and demanding justice. Let us stand in solidarity with all those who sacrifice their freedom for the sake of truth and justice. And let us never forget that love, in all its forms, has the power to overcome even the most formidable obstacles.

In the spirit of Valentine's Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to love and dissent, recognising that they are not mutually exclusive but rather intertwined in the fight for a more just and free world.

Whistleblowers: The lifeblood of democracy

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Navalny writes from his penal colony: “Books are our everything”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image="116753" img_size="full" add_caption="yes"][vc_column_text]Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and Putin critic, is using Instagram to send messages from the penal colony where he is being held to the outside world about his ill-treatment.

Navalny has been in the colony since February, as a direct result of his poisoning with Novichok nerve agent last summer.

The vocal critic of Vladimir Putin’s leadership collapsed on a flight in August and was taken to Omsk where he was treated before being airlifted to Berlin. The doctors there concluded that he had been poisoned with the nerve agent, with the FSB in the frame for doing so, which they deny. [In a bizarre twist, one of the doctors at the Omsk hospital recently disappeared and was found two days ago wandering around a forest.]

He spent a month in Berlin in recovery before returning to Russia, despite threats that he would be detained.

On his return, he was arrested and put on trial for charges relating to an embezzlement case dating from 2014 for violating parole conditions associated with that case. Index and others believe that the charges are politically motivated and are designed to stop Navalny from contesting elections. Navalny’s argument was that he could not register twice per month as agreed in those conditions because he was in hospital.

Despite his arguments, Navalny was sentenced to almost three years in a penal colony in Vladimir Oblast, east of Moscow.

His Instagram feed - updated by his supports and family - reveals that he has been denied medical care, been tortured with sleep deprivation and is being held in unsanitary conditions with many fellow inmates suffering from tuberculosis.

On 31 March, Navalny announced he was going on hunger strike to protest that he was not receiving adequate medical treatment for acute pain in his back and a loss of feeling in his legs and was being deprived of sleep.

“I have the right to call a doctor and get medicine. They don't give me either one or the other, “ he said.

“Instead of medical assistance, I am tortured with sleep deprivation (they wake me up eight times a night),” he wrote in one post.

A week later he revealed that there was a high incidence of tuberculosis in the colony, with three out of fifteen in his “detachment” with symptoms.

“Inside there are unsanitary conditions, tuberculosis, a lack of drugs. Looking at the nightmare plates on which they put gruel, I'm generally surprised that there is no Ebola virus here,” he wrote.

On the 13th day of his hunger strike, he complained that the books he had brought with him had been confiscated and that books that he had requested had not been provided.

Navalny had requested a copy of the Koran in order to better understand Islam.

He wrote, “I came here a month ago and brought a bunch of books. And ordered a bunch of books. But so far I have not been given a single one. Because all of them 'must be checked for extremism'. It takes three months.”

He has now filed a lawsuit against the colony for their failure to provide them.

“Here books are our everything, and if you have to sue for the right to read, I will sue,” he wrote.

Four days later, his captors threatened to force-feed him.

“This morning, a woman colonel stood over me and said: your blood test indicates a serious deterioration in health and risk. If you do not give up on your hunger strike, then we are ready to move on to force feeding now. And then she described the delights of force-feeding to me: straitjacket and other joys,” he wrote.

By 20 April, Navalny called himself a “walking skeleton” but revealed that the messages of support from Russia and around the world were sustaining him.

On 23 April, he wrote, “As Alice from Wonderland said: ‘Here you have to run to stay put. And to get somewhere, you have to run twice as fast.’...I ran, tried, fell, went on a hunger strike, but all the same, without your help, I just broke my forehead.”

Navalny says that the attention focused on him has meant that he finally started receiving some medical treatment.

“Two months ago, they smirked at my requests for medical assistance, they did not give any medicines and did not allow them to be transferred. A month ago, they laughed in my face at phrases like: ‘Can I find out my diagnosis?’ and ‘Can I see my own medical record?’” he wrote.

He has now been examined twice by a council of civilian doctors and has now abandoned his hunger strike.

“It will take 24 days and they say it is even harder [than the hunger strike itself]. Wish me luck.”

On 27 April, he looked back on the previous 12 months, calling it “the year of doctors and nurses and physicians in general”.

“I have never talked so much with them in my life,” he said. “First, the doctors saved me, who was dying from chemical poisoning on the plane.”

He added, “Then they rescued me a second time, risking their careers, explaining to my wife and everyone that I should be immediately taken away from the Omsk hospital, where their evil colleagues will kill me (they will not just treat me) on the orders of the Kremlin.”

“Then the Charité doctors [in Berlin] turned me from a vegetable back into a human being.”

Navalny said in his Instagram message that some doctors had fought a desperate campaign to get him normal treatment.

“Thanks to my prison doctors. I understand that they are just working within the framework that was given to them by their superiors, and therefore by the Kremlin. I can see now that people are sincerely trying to help. Yesterday, the nurse made a mark on my wrist with a pen, so as not to forget the hour when I had to give the next three tablespoons of oatmeal.”

He added, “You know, even through what I had been through all these months: I want one of my children to be a doctor. Although the children are probably not already. Well, let one of the grandchildren then.”

On 2 May, the day that the Russian Orthodox church celebrates Easter, the following message was posted on Instagram.

“How long I have been waiting for this Easter? Lent this year turned out to be difficult for me. Unfortunately, I will not be able to share a fully-fledged Easter meal today: I am still in the first half of my fascinating transformation from a skeleton barely dragging its feet into just a hungry man. But I will eat a few spoons of porridge allowed for me with an excellent Easter mood. Indeed, on such a day, I know and remember for sure that everything will be fine.”

Index and the rest of the world are watching to make sure everything will be fine.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title="You may also want to read" category_id="15"][/vc_column][/vc_row]