Putin says he supported Alexei Navalny prisoner swap

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking on a visit to his campaign headquarters after a presidential election in Moscow, Russia, early Monday, March 18, 2024.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking on a visit to his campaign headquarters after a presidential election in Moscow, Russia, early Monday, March 18, 2024. Copyright Alexander Zemlianichenko/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Euronews with AP
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Russia’s best-known opposition figure died last month while serving a 19-year sentence on extremism charges that supporters say were politically motivated.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin said early on Monday that he supported an idea to release Alexei Navalny in a prisoner exchange just days before the opposition leader died.

In his first comments addressing Navalny’s death, Putin said of the dissident’s demise: “It happens. There is nothing you can do about it. It’s life.”

The remarks were unusual in that he repeatedly referenced Navalny by his name for the first time in years. 

They came at a late-night news conference as results poured in from a presidential election Putin won a landslide victory. 

Early returns showed him leading with over 87% of the votes in a race with no competition, after years of ruthlessly suppressing the opposition and crippling independent media.

Navalny’s allies last month also said that talks with Russian and Western officials about a prisoner swap involving the Kremlin's fiercest foe were underway. 

The politician’s long-time associate Maria Pevchikh said talks were in their final stages just days before Navalny's sudden and unexplained death in an Arctic penal colony.

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny, left, gestures in a court before a hearing in Moscow, Russia, Monday, July 1, 2019.
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny, left, gestures in a court before a hearing in Moscow, Russia, Monday, July 1, 2019.Pavel Golovkin/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved

She accused Putin of “getting rid of” Navalny in order not to exchange him, but offered no evidence to back her claims. 

Euronews cannot independently verify this claim. 

Putin said Monday, also without offering any evidence, that several days before Navalny’s death, “certain colleagues, not from the (presidential) administration” told him about “an idea to exchange Navalny for certain people held in penitentiary facilities in Western countries.” 

He said he supported the idea.

“Believe it or not, but the person talking to me didn’t even finish their sentence when I said: ‘I agree,’” Putin said in response to a question from a journalist about Navalny’s death. He added that his one condition was that Navalny wouldn’t return to Russia.

“But unfortunately, whatever happened, happened,” Putin said.

Navalny, 47, Russia’s best-known opposition politician, died last month while serving a 19-year sentence on extremism charges that he rejected as politically motivated. His allies, family members and Western officials blamed the death on the Kremlin - accusations Moscow has rejected.

The politician’s associates said officials listed “natural causes” on paperwork Navalny’s mother was shown when she was trying to retrieve his body.

Navalny had been jailed since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow of his own accord after recuperating in Germany from nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. He was immediately arrested. The Kremlin has vehemently denied it was behind the poisoning.

Pevchikh claimed that there was a plan to swap Navalny and two US citizens held in Russia for Vadim Krasikov. He 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.

She didn’t identify the US citizens that were supposedly part of the deal. 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.

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

Putin had earlier said that the Kremlin was open to negotiations on Gershkovich. 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.

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