Navalny was close to being freed in exchange for convicted FSB hitman, says ally

Speaking on YouTube, Maria Pevchikh said talks about exchanging Navalny and two unnamed US nationals for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian FSB security service hit man in jail in Germany, were in their final stages at the time of his death.
Last Updated 26 February 2024, 12:32 IST

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny was close to being freed in a prisoner swap at the time of his death, a close ally said on Monday, repeating an allegation by his family and supporters that President Vladimir Putin had him killed.

Speaking on YouTube, Maria Pevchikh said talks about exchanging Navalny and two unnamed US nationals for Vadim Krasikov, a Russian FSB security service hitman in jail in Germany, were in their final stages at the time of his death.

Navalny, 47, died at an Arctic penal colony on Feb. 16. The Kremlin has denied Russian state involvement in his death. Navalny's death certificate stated that he died of natural causes, according to his supporters.

"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," said Pevchikh.

"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 life in Germany after being convicted of killing an exiled Chechen-Georgian dissident in Berlin's Tiergarten park in 2019. Putin signalled in an interview with US journalist Tucker Carlson this month that he wanted to get Krasikov back.

Pevchikh said she had confirmation that negotiations for the swap were in their final stages on the evening of Feb. 15.

Navalny, she alleged, had been killed a day later because Putin could not tolerate the thought of him being free.

Pevchikh, who is based outside Russia, did not immediately disclose sources for some of her assertions or present documentary evidence.

She said that businessman Roman Abramovich had been involved in some of the talks as a mediator with Putin. There was no immediate comment from Abramovich.

Pevchikh did not name the two US nationals in contention to be swapped along with Navalny. But the United States has said it is trying to return Evan Gershkovich, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and Paul Whelan, a former US marine.

Russia accuses both men of espionage, something they deny.

Putin, who has yet to comment on Navalny's death, had previously said that talks between Russian and US intelligence agencies were going on behind the scenes related to Gershkovich, but had made no mention of Navalny, whose name he does not usually mention publicly.

Speaking earlier on Monday, the Kremlin had called allegations that Russian authorities had pressured the mother of Navalny over her son's funeral 'absurd,' saying Putin had not been involved in decisions on Navalny's body.

A spokeswoman for Navalny said on Friday that Russian authorities had given his 69-year-old mother Lyudmila an ultimatum: Agree within three hours to lay him to rest without a public funeral or he would be buried at the prison.

The late opposition politician's body was handed over to his mother in the Arctic city of Salekhard on Saturday. The arrangements for his burial have yet to be announced.

Asked if he would comment on the alleged official pressure put on Navalny's mother, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday:

"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."

Pevchikh said Navalny's allies had been working since the start of the Ukraine war on a plan to get him out of Russia as part of a prisoner exchange involving "Russian spies in exchange for political prisoners".

She said they had made desperate efforts and tried to find intermediaries, even approaching the late Henry Kissinger, but said Western governments had failed to show the necessary political will.

"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."

(Published 26 February 2024, 12:32 IST)

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