World leaders and Russian opposition activists wasted no time on February 16 in blaming the reported death of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his authoritarian government.

Alexei Navalny, who crusaded against official corruption and staged massive anti-Kremlin protests as Putin’s fiercest foe, died in the Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, Russia’s prison agency said. He was 47.

“It is obvious that he was killed by Putin,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was visiting Germany for the Munich Security Conference as he sought aid for his country’s efforts to fight off an invasion by Russia.

“Putin doesn’t care who dies — only for him to hold his position. This is why he must hold onto nothing. Putin must lose everything and be held responsible for his deeds,” Zelenskyy added.

The stunning news — less than a month before an election that will give Putin another six years in power — brought renewed criticism and outrage from world leaders toward the Russian president who has suppressed opposition at home.

U.S. President Joe Biden said Washington does not know exactly what happened, “but there is no doubt that the death of Navalny was a consequence of something Putin and his thugs did.”

Navalny “could have lived safely in exile,” but instead returned to Russia to “continue his work,” despite knowing he could be imprisoned or killed “because he believed so deeply in his country, in Russia.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose country temporarily took in Navalny in 2020 after he was poisoned with a nerve agent, praised the Kremlin critic’s bravery and said his death makes clear “what kind of regime this is.”

“He has probably now paid for this courage with his life,” Scholz said, standing next to Zelenskyy. The German leader said he met Navalny in Berlin during his convalescence.

Navalny, 47, was serving a 19-year prison sentence on extremism charges in a remote penal colony above the Arctic Circle at the time of his death. He had been behind bars since he returned from Germany in January 2021, serving time on various charges that he rejected as a politically motivated effort to keep him imprisoned for life.

Navalny was “brutally murdered by the Kremlin,” said Latvian President Edgars Rinkēvičs in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “That’s a fact, and that is something one should know about the true nature of Russia’s current regime.”

Navalny’s associates stressed they did not have independent confirmation of his death in the reports that came from Russia’s penitentiary officials. His close ally Ivan Zhdanov said authorities “must notify the relatives” within 24 hours, but there have been no such notifications.

Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, appearing at the Munich conference, said she did not know whether to believe the official Russian announcement because “we cannot trust Putin and the Putin government. They always lie.”

“But if this is true, I want Putin and everyone around Putin, Putin’s friends, his government, to know that they will bear responsibility for what they did to our country, to my family and to my husband. And this day will come very soon,” she said.

Navalny’s death also led to an outpouring of grief among Russians living abroad.

More than 100 people were detained in eight cities, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Murmansk in the Arctic Circle, Krasnodar and Rostov-on-Don in the south of Russia, according to the OVD-Info monitoring group. Shouts of “Shame!” were heard as Moscow police rounded up more than a dozen people — including one with a sign reading “Killer” — near a memorial to political prisoners, the group said.

But there was no indication Navalny’s death would spark large protests, with the opposition fractured and now without its “guiding star,” as an associate put it.

In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, hundreds of Russians and others lit candles and laid flowers outside the Russian embassy. Tens of thousands of Russians have moved to Serbia, a fellow Slavic country, since Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago.

Hundreds gathered in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, which has also seen a huge influx of Russians since the invasion of Ukraine. Some held banners saying “Putin is the killer” and “We will not forgive.” Up to 300 people attended a similar rally in Georgia’s third-largest city, Batumi.

Protesters also assembled in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, another country that attracted a lot of Russians after the start of the war in Ukraine.

In Israel, home to a large number of people who came from Russia, hundreds rallied outside the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, chanting “Russia without Putin!” and “Russia will be free!”

Crowds of protesters also rallied in Berlin and Paris, as well as the capitals of Latvia, Bulgaria and Estonia, plus other European cities.

The outpouring of sympathy for Navalny’s family and outrage at the Kremlin, which in recent years mounted an unprecedented crackdown on dissent, came from all over the world.

“If this is true, then no matter the formal cause, the responsibility for the premature death is Vladimir Putin personally, who first gave the green light to the poisoning of Alexei and then put him in prison,” said Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russia tycoon turned opposition figure in exile, in an online statement.

Other Russian opposition activists echoed him.

“If it is confirmed, the death of Alexei is a murder. Organized by Putin,” opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov said on social media. “Even if Alexei died of ‘natural’ causes, those were triggered by his poisoning and further torture in prison.”

Former world chess champion-turned-Kremlin opponent Garry Kasparov said “Putin tried and failed to murder Navalny quickly and secretly with poison, and now he has murdered him slowly and publicly in prison.”

“He was killed for exposing Putin and his mafia as the crooks and thieves they are,” tweeted Kasparov, who lives abroad.

Pyotr Verzilov, a prominent member of the Russian protest group Pussy Riot, said “Navalny was murdered in prison.” In a post on X, Verzilov added: “We will definitely take revenge and destroy this regime.”

Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service reported Navalny felt sick after a walk Friday and lost consciousness at the penal colony in the town of Kharp, in the Yamalo-Nenets region about 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) northeast of Moscow. An ambulance arrived, but he couldn’t be revived; the cause of death is “being established,” it said.

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. He was later convicted three times, saying each case was politically motivated.

After the last verdict, Navalny said he understood he was “serving a life sentence, which is measured by the length of my life or the length of life of this regime.”

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Navalny’s death showed that “Putin fears nothing more than dissent from his own people.”

She called it “a grim reminder of what Putin and his regime are all about,” and added it should provide impetus to “unite in our fight to safeguard the freedom and safety of those who dare to stand up against autocracy.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the fact that Navalny was a prisoner “makes it extremely important that Russia now answer all the questions that it will be asked about the cause of death.”

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron echoed her remarks, saying “Putin’s Russia imprisoned him, trumped up charges against him, poisoned him, sent him to an Arctic penal colony and now he has tragically died. And we should hold Putin accountable for this.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the news had Canadians “reeling.”

“He was such a strong fighter for democracy, for freedoms, for the Russian people. It really shows the extent to which Putin will crack down on anyone who is fighting for freedom for the Russian people,” he said.

“There is no question that Alexei Navalny is dead because he stood up to Putin, he stood up to the Kremlin,” Trudeau added.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov said Navalny was for years “a symbol of the fight against the dictatorship in Russia, of the fight for free speech, of the fact that a person cannot be imprisoned for a different opinion.”

Hours after his death was reported, Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, made a dramatic appearance at a security conference in Germany where many leaders had gathered.

She said she had considered canceling, “but then I thought what Alexei would do in my place. And I’m sure he would be here,” adding that she was unsure if she could believe the news from official Russian sources.

“But if this is true, I want Putin and everyone around Putin, Putin’s friends, his government to know that they will bear responsibility for what they did to our country, to my family and to my husband. And this day will come very soon,” Navalnaya said.

The death was still being investigated, but “the West’s conclusions are already ready,” she said.

Dasha Litvinova, Jim Heintz, Emma Burrows, and MI Staff

Associated Press

TALLINN, Estonia

Mindaugas Kulbis (AP), Evgeny Feldman (AP), Alexander Zemlianichenko (AP), Pavel Golovkin (AP), Dmitry Lovetsky (AP), Pavel Golovkin (AP), Sergey Ponomarev (AP), Paul Zinken (AP), Ebrahim Noroozi (AP), Kin Cheung (AP), Christophe Ena (AP), and Darko Vojinovic (AP)