Navalny’s widow accuses Putin of poisoning husband with novichok and hiding his body

Alexei Navalny’s widow Yulia has accused Vladimir Putin of poisoning her husband with novichok and hiding his body until traces of the nerve agent are unable to be detected.

In a powerful video address, her voice cracking with emotion at points, Yulia Navalnaya vowed soon to expose those she believes are responsible for her husband’s death and pledged to continue her husband’s work – fighting back against the iron grip Mr Putin has had on Russia for more than two decades. She called on Russians to rally behind her, “to share not only the grief and endless pain that has enveloped and gripped us, but also my rage” following the death of the Russian president’s most prominent critic.

Calling Putin and the Russian authorities “cowardly”, Ms Navalnaya spoke with anger about what had taken place: “My husband was unbreakable. And that’s precisely why Putin killed him. Shamefully, cowardly, without ever daring to look him in the eye or just say his name. And just as shamefully and cowardly, they are now hiding his body, not showing it to his mother, not giving it back, and pathetically lying and waiting for traces of another Putin novichok to disappear.”

“We know exactly why Putin killed Alexei three days ago,” Ms Navalnaya said. “We will tell you about it soon. We will definitely find out who exactly carried out this crime, and how exactly. We will name the names and show the faces.”

Navalny was given life-saving treatment in Germany in 2020 after he was poisoned with novichok. He blamed the Kremlin for that attack. It was the same nerve agent that had been used to target the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in 2018.

Navalny returned to Russia in 2021 following his treatment and was immediately arrested. He faced multiple charges that his supporters and much of the international community believed were trumped up in an effort to silence him. He was serving his latest sentence, of 19 years, in an Arctic penal colony having been moved there late last year.

He had kept up the pressure on the Kremlin from inside jail, ahead of a presidential election due to take place in March. There is little doubt that Mr Putin will be re-elected, but Ms Navalnaya said that the work to change Russia must go on.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, with his wife Yulia, right, daughter Daria, and son Zakha in 2019 (AP)
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, with his wife Yulia, right, daughter Daria, and son Zakha in 2019 (AP)

I want to live in a free Russia, I want to build a free Russia,” Ms Navalnaya said in her video message, which was titled “I will continue the work of Alexei Navalny”.

“By killing Alexei, Putin killed half of me – half of my heart and half of my soul. But I still have the other half, and it tells me that I have no right to give up,” she said.

“I urge you to stand next to me,” said Ms Navalnaya, who last saw her husband in person two years ago. “All these years I have been by Alexei’s side... But today I want to be by your side, because I know that you have lost as much as I have.”

Ms Navalnaya lives in an undisclosed location outside Russia, aiming to protect the two children she shared with her late husband. She has not said whether she is considering returning to Russia, where prosecution would likely await. “Putin killed the father of my children. Putin took away the most precious thing I had, the closest person to me, and the person I loved most in the world,” she said.

It is still unclear what exactly has happened to Navalny’s body. Hours after the video address by Ms Navalnaya, Navalny’s spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, said Russian investigators had told his family and his lawyers that they would not release his body for at least two more weeks. “Some kind of ‘chemical examination’ will be conducted with it for another 14 days,” Ms Yarmysh said.

Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila, and his lawyer visited the morgue in Salekhard, the capital of the Arctic Yamalo-Nenets region, on Saturday and were told it was closed. At the time, Navalny’s spokesperson claimed that the Russian authorities were deliberately withholding his body in order to “cover traces” of his murder.

Vladimir Putin has been blamed for Navalny’s sudden death (AFP via Getty)
Vladimir Putin has been blamed for Navalny’s sudden death (AFP via Getty)

On Monday, Ms Yarmysh said that Navalny’s 69-year-old mother and his lawyers had not been allowed into the morgue that morning. The staff didn’t answer when they asked if the body was there, she added.

On Sunday, Russian independent opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, citing an unnamed source, claimed that Navalny’s body had been delivered to the Salekhard District Clinical Hospital and had been seen with bruises. But neither the Russian authorities nor Navalny’s team have spoken about the condition of the body.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in Navalny’s death, and the Russian authorities have told his team that they will not release his body until investigations into his death are complete. When asked how Mr Putin had reacted to news of Navalny’s death, the Russian president’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “I have nothing to add.”

Ms Navalnaya’s video appeal was not reported by state media in Russia.

More than 50,000 people have submitted requests to the Russian government asking for the politician’s remains to be handed over to his relatives, the prominent rights group OVD-Info has said. Hundreds of people in Russia have been detained for trying to pay their respects to Navalny at vigils across the country.

Ms Navalnaya also met with EU foreign ministers in Brussels, as a number of countries called for sanctions in response to Navalny’s death.

“Never forget Russia is not Putin and Putin is not Russia,” Ms Navalnaya said, calling on the EU and the West to “do more to target Putin’s circle”.

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said: “Vladimir Putin and his regime will be held accountable for the death of Alexei Navalny.” He suggested that Russian prison officials linked to Navalny’s death could be added to the list of those who are subject to asset freezes and travel bans. Germany, Lithuania and Sweden were among the EU countries calling for specific new penalties against Russia.

The German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, said she hoped the 27-nation EU would agree on the package of sanctions soon. EU officials say that could happen on Wednesday. “We have seen the brutal force with which the Russian president represses his own citizens who take to the streets to demonstrate for freedom or write about it in newspapers,” she said. “We will propose new sanctions in light of the death of Alexei Navalny.”

In the UK, foreign office minister Leo Docherty told parliament that it is right to describe Navalny’s killing as a “murder”, and that the government is “working at pace” to hold those responsible to account. “The Russian authorities must urgently confirm the location of his body to his family. And allow them access to it,” he added.

US president Joe Biden said later on Monday that his administration is also considering imposing additional sanctions on Russia.

“I know it seems that it is no longer possible [to continue the struggle],” Ms Navalnaya said in her video address. “But we need more. To gather all together in one strong fist and hit this crazed regime with it – Putin, his friends, bandits in uniform, thieves and murderers who crippled our country.”