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Russian opposition figure Ilya Yashin appears on a screen via a video link from a penal colony outside Smolensk during a court hearing on December 13, 2023.ALEXANDER NEMENOV/Getty Images

One of Russia’s most famous political prisoners has accused Vladimir Putin of killing his friend Alexey Navalny, even as Ilya Yashin acknowledged that his own life was in Mr. Putin’s hands.

Mr. Yashin, a protest leader who has been in prison since June, 2022, for publishing information about atrocities committed by the Russian army in Ukraine, said it was clear that Mr. Putin’s special services had intentionally killed Mr. Navalny, whom he described as “my close friend and ally.”

Mr. Navalny and Mr. Yashin – along with Boris Nemtsov, who was killed in 2015; Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is also in prison; and Lyubov Sobol, who is in exile – emerged as the new faces of the anti-Putin resistance when he returned to the Kremlin for an unprecedented third term in 2012.

More than 300 detained in Russia as country mourns death of Alexey Navalny, Putin’s fiercest foe

“I don’t doubt that he didn’t just die but was murdered, and that the order to kill was given by Putin. His security services had already made an attempt on his life back in 2020, and they now have seen it through,” Mr. Yashin wrote to The Globe and Mail on Monday in a letter sent from a penal colony near Smolensk, which is about 400 kilometres west of Moscow, near the Russian border with Belarus.

Mr. Navalny, 47, was declared dead on Friday by Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service, which said that he “felt unwell after a walk, almost immediately losing consciousness” in a special penal colony in the Yamal-Nenets region of the Arctic.

“The life of any Russian opposition figure who remains incarcerated is in Putin’s hands,” the 40-year-old Mr. Yashin wrote in Russian from his prison cell, moments after his lawyer informed him of Mr. Navalny’s death.

“Each of their lives is in danger. Putin has no moral or legal limitations,” Mr. Yashin continued. “I understand that. However, it doesn’t change anything for me. I find it to be beneath my dignity to be scared of a thug. I will try and show the society by example how we can face the fear head-on.”

On Monday, Mr. Navalny’s mother was told she would have to wait two weeks to receive the body while a chemical analysis was performed, leading to accusations from his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, that the Russian authorities were waiting for traces of the Novichok nerve agent to leave the body before it was handed over.

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Russian opposition figure Ilya Yashin, who was also a friend to opposition leader Alexey Navalny, wrote a letter to The Globe and Mail sent from a penal colony near Smolensk, which is located about 400 kilometres west of Moscow.

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Ms. Navalnaya also announced Monday she would continue her husband’s work as the de facto leader of the opposition to Mr. Putin, whom she also accused of murder.

Mr. Navalny survived a 2020 poisoning with the nerve agent that his own investigation – filmed for the Oscar-winning documentary Navalny – found was an attempted assassination carried out by the Kremlin’s security services. Mr. Navalny, who had the widest following of any opposition figure, was flown to Germany for medical treatment after that poisoning, but later chose to return to Russia, only to be arrested as soon as his plane landed at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport in January, 2021.

He remained in jail until his death on Friday, spending much of the past three years in the notorious isolation wards of the prisons he was in.

“There should have been another person in my place, but this person was killed by Vladimir Putin,” Ms. Navalnaya said in a YouTube video. “I have no right to give up. I will continue the work of Alexey Navalny. I will continue to fight for our country and I urge you to stand next to me.”

Mr. Yashin compared Mr. Putin’s regime to a “Mafia” organization. “I presume it’s unnecessary to explain how exactly the Mafia should be fought against. But Putin must face resolute resistance both inside of Russia and out in the world. Otherwise, he won’t stop.”

He said he was being held in a cell with six other inmates, who he said had been jailed for “violent crimes, mostly robberies, and assault and battery.” He said the prison administration was treating him “mostly fairly,” though “every step is being filmed and every move controlled.”

Letters from Alexey Navalny shed light on his final months

In a 2023 letter to The Globe, Mr. Yashin wrote that he had ignored warnings to leave the country or face prison, arguing that his voice would carry more weight behind bars than in exile.

“Even in prison, I can still remain a politician but not outside of the country,” he wrote in his first letter to The Globe. “That’s exactly what Putin was counting on, that all his opponents get scared and leave, and he would explain to the people that we are the foreign agents who ran away back to their masters. That’s why I’ve made the decision to stay, push back and hold my ground, despite the obvious risks.”

His lawyer, Mikhail Biryukov, wrote on Facebook that Mr. Yashin had replied, “Tell me it’s not true,” when he told his client on Monday about Mr. Navalny’s death.

In his latest letter to The Globe, Mr. Yashin said it was clear that he and Mr. Kara-Murza – a 42-year-old who was in ill health even before he was jailed for “discrediting the Russian military” after calling the Russian government “a regime of murderers” – were in danger.

“Putin thought it necessary to deal with Navalny blatantly right before the elections, and he did it,” Mr. Yashin said, referring to Russia’s March 17 elections, in which Mr. Putin – who has been in power as president or prime minister since 1999 – is running effectively unopposed. “If he finds it necessary to eliminate Kara-Murza or me, he will do it without batting an eyelid.”

Mr. Kara-Murza’s wife, Evgenia, told The Globe she agreed with Mr. Yashin’s assessment.

“Political assassination as a method of eliminating opposition voices has been used by this Mafia in the Kremlin for Putin’s entire rule,” she said. “Nemtsov was gunned down in front of the Kremlin. My husband was twice poisoned and is now in prison – held by the same people who tried to kill him twice. Alexey was poisoned and now murdered. And the person personally responsible for creating this system of internal repression and external aggression is Vladimir Putin. And the lives of political prisoners are in constant danger.”

Ms. Kara-Murza, like Ms. Navalnaya, said she would carry on opposing Mr. Putin at every turn. “We have no option but to stay brave against all odds. Russia will be free, I’m sure. The question is how many more lives the regime devours before collapsing into hell.”

In his letter, Mr. Yashin said he would also do all he could to honour Mr. Navalny’s memory and his cause.

“I recognize my moral duty to my deceased associate. And the duty is to be worthy of his memory. That’s why I won’t become silent and will remain a public Russian voice against the war and the dictatorship.”

With translation by Gaya Marina Garbaruk

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