Yulia Navalnaya, Alexei Navalny's wife, says she will lead fight against Russia's Putin

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Yulia Navalnaya issued a defiant statement Monday, saying she would continue the work of her husband, Alexei Navalny, a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin who died in custody in mysterious circumstances.

Navalnaya made the announcement in a video posted on YouTube.

“I should not have been in this position,” Navalnaya said in the video, in which she accuses Putin of orchestrating her husband's death. "I should not be recording this video. A different person should be in my place."

Her emotional response comes as Navalny’s family and political aides have demanded that Russia's authorities return his body to them after prison authorities said he suffered "sudden death syndrome" where he was being held at a remote Arctic prison. Navalny's allies believe he was murdered on Putin's orders.

Navalny, 47, crusaded against official corruption and staged massive anti-Kremlin protests. He was imprisoned on charges that were widely viewed as politically motivated. Putin's critics have a tendency of falling ill or dying after criticizing Putin. Navalny's political foundation investigated corruption and Putin's wealth.

Kremlin has not formally disputed claims it had a hand in Navalny's death

Navalnaya has long resisted taking a more active political role in her husband's work. Even when her husband was a free man, she said she was primarily a mother and a wife and not interested in being politically active.

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The Kremlin has not formally disputed Navalnaya's claim that it had a hand in her husband's killing, although Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused Western leaders on Monday of making "obnoxious statements" about Putin's responsibility for Navalny's death.

In her video, Navalnaya talked about creating a Russia that parents like her would want their children to grow up in.

"What we need is a free, peaceful and happy Russia," she said. "The wonderful Russia of the future my husband so dreamed of. That’s what we need. That is the country I want to live in and for our children to grow up in. That’s the country I want to build together with you. The country Alexei Navalny imagined."

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Navalny's death robs Russia of its most high-profile Putin foe. He spent years in and out of Russia's jails. He also nearly died in 2020 when he was poisoned with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent.

Bill Browder, a U.S.-born businessman who was once among the biggest foreign investors in Russia before becoming a political activist against Putin's regime, said he hopes Navalnaya continues her family's fight against Putin from abroad. Navalny returned to Russia after receiving treatment for poisoning in Germany.

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"What we've seen is they kill, imprison or exile every person who has any inclination to oppose the regime," said Browder, who Russia has sought to detain multiple times using Interpol arrest warrants.

Browder helped draft the Magnitsky Act, an international law that seeks to hold Russian officials accountable for fraud, tax evasion and human-rights abuses. The measure is named after Sergei Magnitsky, Browder's former lawyer, who died in a Russian jail in 2009 after saying officials had been committing fraud on a massive scale.

Russia's political opposition: What now?

Navalnaya, in her video, appealed to Russians help her pressure Putin's government.

"I call on you to stand with me. To share not only anguish and pain. But anger," she said.

Inside Russia, that is a tall order.

The country has long had repressive laws that criminalize political dissent. That crackdown has hardened even further since Russia invaded Ukraine. It has led to the arrest of thousands of ordinary Russians for questioning the war or expressing sympathy with Ukrainians. Dozens of Russians have been prosecuted over the past few years for even wearing the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.

As a result, many Russians have fled to neighboring countries such as Georgia.

"I was inspired by Navanly's ability to stay positive while he was in jail," said one man, who did not want to be identified because he works for a human-rights group that is still active in Russia.

He said he and his colleagues had few ideas about where Russia's opposition movement would go next.

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Arseny Velikanov, a 24-year-old Muscovite, is another.

"Navalny said to us Russians: 'You can do anything to me and I will still speak the truth,'" said Velikanov.

"After the initial shock of his death, my first thought was about all the other political prisoners in Russia."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Alexei Navalny's wife says she'll continue fight against Putin, Russia