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Navalny was close to freedom at time of death, claims ally

A portrait of Alexei Navalny lies among floral tributes illuminated by a candle outside the Russian embassy in Berlin
A portrait of Alexei Navalny among floral tributes illuminated by a candle outside the Russian embassy in Berlin - FILIP SINGER/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

Vladimir Putin was close to setting free Alexei Navalny as part of a prisoner swap shortly before his death, a close ally of the slain Russian opposition leader has said.

The final stages of the proposed swap were being discussed on Feb 15, the day before died, Maria Pevchikh said in a statement on YouTube on Monday..

But she claimed Putin had Mr Navalny killed instead because he could not tolerate the thought of his only credible rival in Russian politics being set free.

Ms Pevchikh, who is based outside Russia, said the talks centred on releasing Mr Navalny and two unnamed US citizens in return for Vadim Krasikov, the so-called Berlin bicycle killer, who is serving a life sentence in Germany for an assassination allegedly ordered by Moscow.

Maria Pevchikh gave her statement on Alexei Navalny's YouTube channel
Maria Pevchikh gave her statement in a video entitled 'Why did Putin Kill Navalny now' on Alexei Navalny's YouTube channel - YOUTUBE

“Alexei Navalny could be sitting in this seat right now, right today. That’s not a figure of speech, it could and should have happened,” Ms Pevchikh said in her video statement.

“Navalny should have been out in the next few days because we got a decision about his exchange. In early February, Putin was offered to exchange the killer, FSB officer Vadim Krasikov, who’s serving time for a murder in Berlin, for two American citizens and Alexei Navalny.”

Krasikov was jailed for gunning down a Chechen dissident in Berlin’s Tiergarten park in 2019.

Vadim Krasikov, known as the Berlin bicycle killer
Vadim Krasikov, known as the Berlin bicycle killer, is serving life for 'state-ordered' murder in Germany - REX
Women hold up portraits of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, the Chechen activist murdered by the Berlin bicycle killer, in front of the German embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Women hold up portraits of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, the Chechen activist murdered by the Berlin bicycle killer, in front of the German embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia. Mr Khangoshvili was a Georgian citizen - ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE/EPA-EFE/REX

Ms Pevchikh did not name the two US citizens supposedly being lined up for the prisoner swap. However, Moscow is currently holding a US journalist and a former US marine, both of whom strongly deny charges of espionage.

Putin suggested in his recent interview with Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News presenter, that he wanted to swap Krasikov for Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal correspondent.

Earlier on Monday, the Kremlin denied reports that Mr Navalny’s mother Lyudmila had been given a choice between burying her son without a public funeral at three hours’ notice or having him buried on the grounds of the prison colony where he was killed.

Burial claims ‘absurd’, says Kremlin

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said: “I can’t comment in any way because the Kremlin has nothing to do with this, so the Kremlin cannot exert pressure. This is another absurd statement by these [Navalny] supporters.

“They are almost all wanted [by the Russian authorities] and almost all of them are abroad. Their statements should be treated accordingly.”

Ms Pevchikh also said a number of Western officials had held talks with Navalny’s allies about securing his release over the years. But she expressed frustration that they had not followed through on their promises.

“Officials, American and German, nodded their heads in understanding. They recounted how important it was to help Navalny and political prisoners, they shook hands, made promises and did nothing,” she said.

She also claimed that Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch and former Chelsea FC owner, had been involved in some mediation talks with Putin.