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Navalny's family and supporters lay the opposition leader to rest after his death in prison

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Under a heavy police presence, thousands of people bade farewell Friday to opposition leader Alexei Navalny at his funeral in Moscow after his still-unexplained death two weeks ago in an Arctic penal colony.

The crowds who thronged to honor Navalny outside a church and cemetery in a snowy southeastern suburb of the capital chanted slogans for him and against Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war in Ukraine, turning the event into one of the largest recent displays of dissent. But police did not act against them.

At least 131 people were detained at events across Russia in Navalny's memory, said OVD-Info, a rights group that tracks political arrests, with most stopped while trying to lay flowers at monuments dedicated to victims of Soviet repression. When his death was announced Feb. 16, police detained hundreds who tried to leave flowers.

Navalny was buried after a short Russian Orthodox ceremony, with vast crowds waiting outside the church and then streaming to the fresh grave with flowers.

Navalny's widow, Yulia, who was not seen at the funeral, thanked him for “26 years of absolute happiness."

“I don't know how to live without you, but I will try to do it in a way that you up there are proud of me and happy for me,” she wrote on Instagram.

Navalny’s 23-year-old daughter, Daria, also shared a tribute to her father.

“Ever since I was a child, you taught me to live by certain principles. To live with dignity. You gave your life for me, for mum, for (my brother) Zakhar, for Russia,” she wrote on Instagram. “I promise you that I will live my life in the way that you taught me, in a way that will make you proud — and most importantly, with a smile on my face.”

The funeral followed a battle with authorities over the release of his body. His team said several Moscow churches refused to hold the funeral for the man who crusaded against official corruption and organized massive protests. Many Western leaders blamed the death on the Russian leader, an accusation the Kremlin angrily rejected.

Police, right, observe as people walk towards the Borisovskoye Cemetery for the funeral ceremony of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo)

Navalny’s team eventually got permission from the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God Soothe My Sorrows, which was surrounded by crowd-control barriers.

As his coffin was removed from the hearse and taken inside the church, the crowd waiting outside broke into respectful applause and then chanted: “Navalny! Navalny!” Some also shouted, “You weren’t afraid, neither are we!” and later “No to war!” “Russia without Putin!” and “Russia will be free!”

Western diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy, were among those who attended, along with presidential hopefuls Boris Nadezhdin and Yekaterina Duntsova. Both wanted to run against Putin in the upcoming presidential elections and opposed his war in Ukraine; neither was allowed on the ballot.

Inside the church, Navalny's open casket showed him covered with red and white flowers. His parents, Lyudmila and Anatoly, sat beside it.

Navalny's closest associates live outside Russia and made comments in a livestream of the funeral on his YouTube channel, their voices occasionally cracking with emotion.

“Those people who follow what is happening, it is of course obvious to them that this man is a hero of our country, whom we will not forget," said Nadezhda Ivanova of Kaliningrad, who was outside the church with other supporters. “What was done to him is incredibly difficult to accept and get through it."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged those gathering in Moscow and other places not to break the law, saying any “unauthorized (mass) gatherings” are violations.

After the short church service, thousands marched to the nearby Borisovskoye Cemetery, where the police were also out in force.

With the casket open, Navalny’s mother and father stroked and kissed his head. A large crowd gathered at the cemetery's gates, chanting: “Let us in to say goodbye!”

The coffin was then lowered into the ground. In keeping with his irreverent sense of humor, music from the “The Terminator 2" was played, a movie his allies said he considered “the best in the world.”

Mourners streamed by his open grave, tossing handfuls of soil onto the coffin as a large crowd waited at the cemetery's entrance. As dusk fell, workers shoveled dirt into the grave while Lyudmila Navalnaya watched. A mound of flowers, funeral wreaths, candles and a portrait of Navalny sat nearby.

Lyudmila Navalnaya had spent eight days trying to get authorities to release her son's body following his Feb. 16 death at Penal Colony No. 3 in the town of Kharp, in the Yamalo-Nenets region about 1,900 kilometres (1,200 miles) northeast of Moscow.

Even on Friday, the morgue where the body was being held delayed its release, according to Ivan Zhdanov, Navalny's close ally and director of his Anti-Corruption Foundation.

People lay flowers paying the last respect to Alexei Navalny, in a street not far from the Borisovskoye Cemetery in Moscow, Russia, Friday, March 1, 2024. (AP Photo)

Authorities near the penal colony originally said they couldn't release the body because they needed to conduct post-mortem tests. Lyudmila Navalnaya made a video appeal to Putin to release it so she could bury her son with dignity.

Russian authorities still haven't announced the cause of death for Navalny, who was 47. His team cited paperwork that Lyudmila Navalnaya saw that listed "natural causes," although the day before his death he had appeared in court via video link joking with officials.

At least one funeral director said he had been "forbidden" to work with Navalny's supporters, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on social media. They also struggled to find a hearse.

"Unknown people are calling up people and threatening them not to take Alexei's body anywhere," Yarmysh said Thursday.

Navalny had been jailed since January 2021, when he returned to Moscow to face certain arrest after recuperating in Germany from nerve agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin. His Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his regional offices were designated as "extremist organizations" by the Russian government that same year.

Yulia Navalnaya accused Putin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin of trying to block a public funeral.

“We don’t want any special treatment — just to give people the opportunity to say farewell to Alexei in a normal way,” she wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

Moscow authorities refused permission for a separate memorial event for Navalny and slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on Friday, citing COVID-19 restrictions, according to former presidential hopeful Duntsova. Nemtsov, a 55-year-old former deputy prime minister, was shot to death as he walked on a bridge adjacent to the Kremlin on the night of Feb. 27, 2015.

Yarmysh also urged Navalny's supporters around the world to lay flowers in his honour Friday.

Hundreds brought flowers and candles at the Russian Embassy in Tbilisi in a rally organized by those who fled Russia since the start of the war with Ukraine. In a rainy Rome, a delegation from the Italian Radical party went to Moscow's embassy for the Kremlin critic.

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