Putin had Alexei Navalny killed to sabotage impending prisoner swap, says ally of opposition leader

A woman holds flowers and a portrait of Alexei Navalny during a protest in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin. Credit: AP

Allies of Alexei Navalny have said he was killed in order to sabotage an impending prisoner swap for a convicted German hitman.

Navalny, known as Vladimir Putin's most recognisable opposition figure within Russian politics, suddenly died at an Arctic prison on February 16.

Hundreds have been arrested in Russia for trying to pay public tribute to Navalny as his wife has accused Putin of killing her husband and alleged the initial refusal to release his body was part of a cover-up.

On Monday, associate of Navalny Maria Pevchikh said in a video statement: "Alexei Navalny could have been sitting here now, today. It's not a figure of speech."

Alexei Navalny died on February 16 in an Arctic penal colony. Credit: AP

According to Ms Pevchikh, Navalny and two US citizens held in Russia were supposed to be swapped for Vadim Krasikov.

Krasikov was serving a life sentence in Germany for the 2019 killing in Berlin of Zelimkhan "Tornike" Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Georgian citizen of Chechen descent.

German judges said Krasikov acted on the orders of Russian authorities, who gave him a false identity, passport, and resources to carry out the killing.

Ms Pevchikh said she received confirmation the talks to swap were in the “final stages” on February 15, the day before Navalny was reported dead.

She alleged in her video that Putin “wouldn't tolerate” setting Navalny free and decided to “get rid of the bargaining chip.” She offered no evidence to back that claim.

She also did not identify the US citizens that were supposedly part of the deal.

Alexei Navalny with his wife Yulia after a rally in Moscow in 2013. Credit: AP

There are several in custody in Russia, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich arrested on espionage charges, and Paul Whelan, a corporate security executive from Michigan, convicted of espionage and serving a long prison sentence.

They and the US government dispute the charges against them.

German officials have refused to comment when asked if there had been any effort by Russia to secure a swap of Krasikov.

US commentator Tucker Carlson earlier this month asked President Vladimir Putin about the prospects of exchanging Gershkovich, and Putin said the Kremlin was open to negotiations.

He pointed to a man imprisoned in a “US-allied country” for “liquidating a bandit” who had allegedly killed Russian soldiers during separatist fighting in Chechnya.

Putin didn’t mention names but appeared to refer to Krasikov.

Police officers detain a woman who laid flowers to Alexei Navalny at the Memorial to Victims of Political Repression in St. Petersburg. Credit: AP

Navalny, 47, Russia’s best-known opposition politician, died while serving a 19-year sentence on extremism charges that he rejected as politically motivated.

His family spent a week fighting with the authorities, who reportedly insisted on a secret funeral, before his body was returned to them.

Prominent Russians released videos calling on authorities to release the body.

Western nations have hit Russia with more sanctions in response to Navalny’s death as well as for the invasion of Ukraine, which marked its second anniversary on Saturday.

Navalny's spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on Monday they were looking for a venue for a memorial service later this week.

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