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The body of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been handed over to his mother, aide says

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The body of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been handed over to his mother, a top aide to Navalny said Saturday on his social media account.

Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny鈥檚 Anti-Corruption Foundation, made the announcement on his Telegram account and thanked 鈥渆veryone鈥 who had called on Russian authorities to return Navalny鈥檚 body to his mother.

Earlier on Saturday, Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny鈥檚 widow, accused President Vladimir Putin of mocking Christianity by trying to force his mother to agree to a secret funeral after his death in an Arctic penal colony.

鈥淭hank you very much. Thanks to everyone who wrote and recorded video messages. You all did what you needed to do. Thank you. Alexei Navalny鈥檚 body has been given to his mother,鈥 Zhdanov wrote.

Navalny, 47, Russia鈥檚 most well-known opposition politician, unexpectedly died on Feb. 16 in an Arctic penal colony and his family has been fighting for more than a week to have his body returned to them. Prominent Russians released videos calling on authorities to release the body and Western nations have hit Russia with more sanctions as punishment for Navalny鈥檚 death as well as for the second anniversary of its invasion of Ukraine.

Navalny鈥檚 mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, is still in Salekhard, Navalny鈥檚 press secretary Kira Yarmysh said on X, formerly Twitter. Lyudmila Navalnaya has been in the Arctic region for more than a week, demanding that Russian authorities return the body of her son to her.

鈥淭he funeral is still pending,鈥 Yarmysh tweeted, questioning whether authorities will allow it to go ahead 鈥渁s the family wants and as Alexei deserves.鈥

Earlier on Saturday, Navalny鈥檚 widow said in a video that Navalny鈥檚 mother was being 鈥渓iterally tortured鈥 by authorities who had threatened to bury Navalny in the Arctic prison. They, she said, suggested to his mother that she did not have much time to make a decision because the body is decomposing, Navalnaya said.

鈥淕ive us the body of my husband,鈥 Navalnaya said earlier Saturday. 鈥淵ou tortured him alive, and now you keep torturing him dead. You mock the remains of the dead.鈥

Authorities have detained scores of people as they seek to suppress any major outpouring of sympathy for Putin鈥檚 fiercest foe before the presidential election he is almost certain to win. Russians on social media say officials don鈥檛 want to return Navalny鈥檚 body to his family, because they fear a public show of support for him.

Navalnaya accused Putin, an Orthodox Christian, of killing Navalny.

Women react as they lay flowers to pay tribute to Alexei Navalny at the monument, a large boulder from the Solovetsky islands, where the first camp of the Gulag political prison system was established, near the historical Federal Security Service (FSB, Soviet KGB successor) building in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. Navalny, 47, Russia鈥檚 most well-known opposition politician, unexpectedly died on Feb. 16 in the penal colony, prompting hundreds of Russians across the country to stream to impromptu memorials with flowers and candles. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Women react as they lay flowers to pay tribute to Alexei Navalny at the monument, a large boulder from the Solovetsky islands, where the first camp of the Gulag political prison system was established, near the historical Federal Security Service (FSB, Soviet KGB successor) building in Moscow, Russia, on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024. Navalny, 47, Russia鈥檚 most well-known opposition politician, unexpectedly died on Feb. 16 in the penal colony, prompting hundreds of Russians across the country to stream to impromptu memorials with flowers and candles. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

鈥淣o true Christian could ever do what Putin is now doing with the body of Alexei,鈥 she said, asking, 鈥淲hat will you do with his corpse? How low will you sink to mock the man you murdered?鈥

Saturday marked nine days since the opposition leader鈥檚 death, a day when Orthodox Christians hold a memorial service.

People across Russia came out to mark the occasion and honor Navalny鈥檚 memory by gathering at Orthodox churches, leaving flowers at public monuments or holding one-person protests.

Muscovites lined up outside the city鈥檚 Christ the Savior Cathedral to pay their respects, according to photos and videos published by independent Russian news outlet SOTAvision. The video also shows Russian police stationed nearby and officers stopping several people for an ID check.

Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, reacts as she speaks during the Munich Security Conference, in Munich, Germany, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. Navalny, who crusaded against official corruption and staged massive anti-Kremlin protests as President Vladimir Putin's fiercest foe, died Friday in the Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, Russia's prison agency said. He was 47. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Pool Photo via AP)

Yulia Navalnaya, wife of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, reacts as she speaks during the Munich Security Conference, in Munich, Germany, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. Navalny, who crusaded against official corruption and staged massive anti-Kremlin protests as President Vladimir Putin鈥檚 fiercest foe, died Friday in the Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, Russia鈥檚 prison agency said. He was 47. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Pool Photo via AP)

As of Saturday evening, at least 38 people had been detained in Russia for showing support for Navalny, according to the OVD-Info rights group that tracks political arrests.

They included Elena Osipova, a 78-year-old artist from St. Petersburg who stood in a street with a poster showing Navalny with angel wings, and Sergei Karabatov, 64, who came to a Moscow monument to victims of political repression with flowers and a note saying 鈥淒on鈥檛 think this is the end.鈥

Also arrested was Aida Nuriyeva, from the city of Ufa near the Ural Mountains, who publicly held up a sign saying 鈥淧utin is Navalny鈥檚 murderer! I demand that the body be returned!鈥

Putin is often pictured at church, dunking himself in ice water to celebrate the Epiphany and visiting holy sites in Russia. He has promoted what he has called 鈥渢raditional values鈥 without which, he once said, 鈥渟ociety degrades.鈥

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected allegations that Putin was involved in Navalny鈥檚 death, calling them 鈥渁bsolutely unfounded, insolent accusations about the head of the Russian state.鈥

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Orthodox Easter service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, April 24, 2022. The widow of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny accused President Vladimir Putin of mocking Christianity by trying to force his mother to agree to a secret funeral after his death in a penal colony. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File)

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Orthodox Easter service in the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, April 24, 2022. The widow of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny accused President Vladimir Putin of mocking Christianity by trying to force his mother to agree to a secret funeral after his death in a penal colony. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File)

Musician Nadya Tolokonnikova, who became widely known after spending nearly two years in prison for taking part in a 2012 protest with her band Pussy Riot inside Moscow鈥檚 Christ the Savior Cathedral, was one of many prominent Russians who released a video in which she accused Putin of hypocrisy and asked him to release Navalny鈥檚 body.

鈥淲e were imprisoned for allegedly trampling on traditional values. But no one tramples on traditional Russian values more than you, Putin, your officials and your priests who pray for all the murder that you do, year after year, day after day,鈥 said Tolokonnikova, who lives abroad. 鈥淧utin, have a conscience, give his mother the body of her son.鈥

Lyudmila Navalnaya said Thursday that investigators allowed her to see her son鈥檚 body in the morgue in the Arctic city of Salekhard. She had filed a lawsuit at a court in Salekhard contesting officials鈥 refusal to release the body. A closed-door hearing had been scheduled for March 4.

Yarmysh, Navalny鈥檚 spokesman, said that Lyudmila Navalnaya was shown a medical certificate stating that her son died of 鈥渘atural causes.鈥

Burrows is an Associated Press reporter covering Russia, Belarus, Central Asia and the Caucasus. She is based in London.