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Alexei Navalny's body has been returned to his family

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Allies of the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny say his body has finally been returned to his family. Since his death 10 days ago, there's been a public standoff with Russian authorities over the fate of his remains. Navalny died under mysterious circumstances in a remote Arctic prison where he was serving a lengthy sentence widely seen as retribution for his criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It's thought the authorities are nervous that mourning for Navalny could turn into protest. Joining us to talk about it from Moscow is NPR's Charles Maynes. Good morning, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: Charles, this is a bit of a dark topic for a Sunday morning, but fill us in on the latest. Does the Navalny family now have possession of his body?

MAYNES: Well, according to Navalny's political team, officials in the Russian town of Salekhard - this is above the Arctic Circle - released the opposition leader's body to his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, last night. The exchange ends a pretty grim weeklong standoff during which Navalnaya had been trying to first get access to her son's body just to confirm his death and then to claim his remains for burial. And in both cases, the Russian authorities were preventing her from doing so. In fact, as Mrs. Navalnaya explained in a video, it was worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYUDMILA NAVALNAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here she says that investigators were blackmailing her, threatening to bury her son in the prison colony where he died if she didn't agree to a secret funeral out of the public eye. In fact, she says, one official warned her that time was not on her side, given that her son's body was decomposing. Now, she refused and of course, won in the end. But the ordeal has been added pain to what was already a grueling week for the Navalny family.

RASCOE: Do we know what changed the authorities' minds?

MAYNES: Well, there was this online campaign by Russian celebrities, many in exile, calling on President Putin to intervene and release Navalny's body to his mother, people like the Russian American ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Nobel Prize laureate Dmitry Muratov and others. And many of them pointed out that this was sacrilege, that Putin was violating his own beliefs as a devout Orthodox Christian. Meanwhile, Yulia Navalnaya, Alexei Navalny's widow, released a video attacking Putin in very personal terms that by refusing to hand over the body, he was proving his beliefs were a charade. Did all that pressure change things? Who knows? But let's not forget that Navalny's team also argues another reason for these delays is to cover up evidence of Navalny's murder, a charge that the Kremlin spokesman has vehemently denied. In fact, a state post-mortem found that Navalny died from natural causes. Although there are, of course, a lot of skepticism towards those findings in the Navalny camp.

RASCOE: What happens now? Does this mean that we'll see a funeral as Navalny's mother says she wants?

MAYNES: Well, that's the big question, and we don't have an answer yet. Clearly, the last week has shown authorities don't want any mass outpouring of sympathy for Navalny, as evidenced not only by this standoff over his remains, but also by the arrest of several hundred supporters, many for simply bringing flowers to makeshift memorials around the country. For now, Navalny's mother is still in Salekhard in the Arctic Circle with her son's remains, and we're waiting to see what plans the family announces next and how authorities react.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Charles Maynes reporting from Moscow. Thank you so much, Charles.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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