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Reports of Alexei Navalny's death a reminder of 'what a monster Putin is': Trudeau

OTTAWA — Reports of Alexei Navalny's death in a Russian prison are tragic and horrifying, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday, offering his condolences to the opposition leader's family and all who champion his pursuit of justice.
Canada's foreign affairs minister says the reported death of Alexei Navalny, who crusaded against official corruption in Russia, is a "painful reminder" of Vladimir Putin's "continued oppressive regime." Flowers and a photo are left opposite the Russian Embassy in London, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, in reaction to the news that Navalny has died in a Russian prison, according to the Federal Penitentiary Service. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Kin Cheung

OTTAWA — Reports of Alexei Navalny's death in a Russian prison are tragic and horrifying, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday, offering his condolences to the opposition leader's family and all who champion his pursuit of justice.

Trudeau described Navalny as someone who was "standing up with extraordinary courage for a better future for Russia and Russians."

He added: "We know how much that scares and continues to scare (Russian President) Vladimir Putin."

Speaking to a crowd at the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, Trudeau said there is no question Navalny knew this outcome "was always going to be a possibility."

Trudeau said in an earlier post on social media that Navalny, who crusaded against corruption in Russia, should never have been imprisoned to begin with.

"Let this be an important reminder that we must continue to promote, protect and defend democracy everywhere," he said. "The consequences of not doing so are stark."

Trudeau is among international leaders and others opposed to Putin's rule who are voicing their admiration and support for Navalny's work and offering sympathies following the news.

Russia's prison agency said Nalvalny, who was serving a 19-year sentence in an Arctic penal colony, died Friday.

The Federal Penitentiary Service said the 47-year-old Navalny felt unwell after a walk and lost consciousness, and could not be revived by paramedics.

On Friday afternoon, Russia's embassy said Canada should stop "interfering into our internal affairs."

"Every death is a tragedy. But the death of a Russian citizen is strictly Russia's matter," the embassy posted on social media.

Carleton University political science professor Andrea Chandler said one way for Canada to respond would be "to say that they hope that the Navalny family will one day know the full facts of what happened to their loved one."

She said the UN General Assembly recognized the right to the truth in 2005, under which families of individuals who "died mysteriously under authoritarian regimes are entitled to accountability."

Chandler said "such a statement would avoid the empty gesture of calling upon Putin to respect human rights, and instead remind him that justice may come one day whether he likes it or not."

Navalny's associates stressed they didn't have independent confirmation of his death in the reports that came from Russia's penitentiary officials. His close ally Ivan Zhdanov said authorities "must notify the relatives" within 24 hours "if true."

In comments broadcast on CBC Manitoba's Information Radio show Friday, Trudeau said he was "reeling" over the reports. 

"It really shows the extent to which Putin has — will — crack down on anyone who is fighting for freedom for the Russian people," he said.

"It is a tragedy and it's something that has the entire world being reminded of exactly what a monster Putin is." 

Trudeau told host Marcy Markusa there are questions about what happened to Navalny and "our trust for the Russian authorities to be truthful about that will of course be not exactly strong."

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre blamed Putin for the death in a social media post. "Putin imprisoned Navalny for the act of opposing the regime. Conservatives condemn Putin for his death."

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said in a post on social media that Navalny's reported death is a "painful reminder" of Putin's "continued oppressive regime."

And NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Navalny's work "exposed corruption by Putin's oligarchs."

Just hours after his death was reported, Navalny's wife, Yulia Navalnaya, took the stage at a security conference in Germany that Joly and Defence Minister Bill Blair are attending this week.

Navalnaya said she considered cancelling her appearance.

"But then I thought what Alexei would do in my place. And I’m sure he would be here," she said, noting that she was not even sure if she could believe the news coming from official Russian sources. 

"But if this is true, I want Putin and everyone around Putin, Putin’s friends, his government to know that they will bear responsibility for what they did to our country, to my family and to my husband. And this day will come very soon."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, waging a fight against Russia's full-scale invasion of his country, had a blunt assessment of the reports about Navalny.

“It is obvious that he was killed by Putin," said Zelenskyy, visiting Germany for the security conference as he sought aid for his country in its armed resistance.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia has questions to answer.

"What we have seen is that Russia has become a more and more authoritarian power, that they have used repression against the opposition for many years," Stoltenberg said.

Navalny, he said, "was in jail, a prisoner, and that makes it extremely important that Russia now answer all the questions that it will be asked about the cause of death."

Navalny's death comes weeks before a presidential election expected to give Putin another six years in power. 

He had been in prison since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow to face certain arrest after recuperating in Germany from nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. 

Before his arrest, Navalny campaigned against official corruption, organized major anti-Kremlin protests and ran for public office.

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania specializing in Russia, said Navalny was the figurehead of the Russian opposition, who continued to fight back despite being put in jail and poisoned. 

Navalny regularly took on Putin, taking aim at "Putin’s arrogance and his hypocrisy, in terms of when he decided to follow the law and when he didn't decide to follow the law," St. Julian-Varnon said. 

He showed Russians "that there were extreme costs to them for Putin being the leader of Russia."

And he used strong Western connections to get his message out internationally.

The news of his death is devastating, but not necessarily surprising, St. Julian-Varnon said. 

When Navalny returned to Russia after his poisoning, "I think he understood his death was going to be the ultimate price he would have to pay."

In Moscow and other Russian cities, people laid flowers at monuments to victims of Soviet-era repression, but there was no indication Navalny's death would spark large protests. Navalny's death also led to an outpouring of grief among Russians living abroad.

St. Julian-Varnon noted there were large protests in Russia when Putin invaded Ukraine two years ago, but they didn't lead to regime change. "I'm cautiously optimistic about what we’re seeing right now," she said.

Navalny's death, she added, shows a "more blatant and open disregard of any type of respect for law or international law when it comes to Putin getting rid of the opposition."

She noted Navalny was a figurehead, but there are hundreds of others who have been imprisoned for dissent against Putin. 

"We have to continue to remember them," she said. 

If attention fades because Navalny is gone, "this kind of internal terror will be able to continue to happen in force under Putin against those people."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 16, 2024.

— With files from Anja Karadeglija in Ottawa and The Associated Press.

The Canadian Press