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An Indian government official directed an unsuccessful plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist in New York City, US justice chiefs have claimed.

They allege the Indian government employee, who worked in security and intelligence, recruited another Indian national named as Nikhil Gupta to plan the assassination of a US citizen who had advocated for a Sikh sovereign state in northern India.

It comes after the Canadian government sparked a diplomatic row by claiming India may have been involved in the June killing of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia.

On Wednesday, US Department of Justice (DoJ) officials announced charges against Gupta, 52, who they claim worked with the Indian government employee on the alleged plot to kill the US citizen.

The Indian government official is named only as CC-1 but has described himself as a “senior field officer” with responsibilities in “security management” and “intelligence” and also claims to have served in India’s Central Reserve Police Force and been trained in “battle craft” and “weapons,” an indictment against Gupta said.

Prosecutors allege the Indian official recruited Gupta in May 2023 to orchestrate the assassination, and he then reached out to someone he believed was a criminal associate for help hiring a hitman.

However, prosecutors said the associate was actually an undercover agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

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According to the indictment, released on Wednesday, Gupta agreed to a $100,000 (£79,000) fee for the killing and paid $15,000 (£12,000) upfront via an associate.

The target of the assassination was not named in the court documents, but the Associated Press identified him as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun – a US-based Sikh separatist whom the Indian government considers a terrorist.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. File pic by AP
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Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. File pic by AP

The indictment said that, in June, the Indian government employee gave Gupta the home address of Pannun, his phone numbers and details about his daily conduct, including surveillance photographs, which Gupta then passed on to the undercover DEA agent.

It added that Gupta told the undercover agent to carry out the murder as quickly as possible, but also warned the agent not to act during meetings between US and Indian officials.

US Attorney Damian Williams said: “The defendant conspired from India to assassinate, right here in New York City, a US citizen of Indian origin who has publicly advocated for the establishment of a sovereign state for Sikhs, an ethnoreligious minority group in India.”

Gupta, who faces two counts of murder-for-hire and murder-for-hire conspiracy, was arrested by Czech authorities in June and is awaiting extradition.

The news agency Reuters says he could not be reached for comment.

The charges come after an official of President Joe Biden’s administration last week said authorities had thwarted a plot to kill Pannun.

The official also issued a warning to India over concerns the government in New Delhi may have had knowledge of the plot.

On Wednesday, India’s foreign ministry said New Delhi would formally investigate the concerns aired by the US.

“India takes such inputs seriously since they impinge on our national security interests as well,” the ministry said, vowing to “take necessary follow-up action” on the findings.

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US urges India to cooperate with Sikh separatist death probe
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The Indian government has complained about the presence of Sikh separatist groups outside India, including in Canada and the US.

The groups have kept alive the movement for Khalistan – the demand for an independent Sikh state to be carved out of India.

The movement is considered a security threat by India – who have blamed Sikh militants for the 1985 bombing of an Air India Boeing 747 flying from Canada to India when all 329 people on board were killed.

In October, Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said there were “credible allegations” that India was involved in the killing of Nijjar.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar Pic: Sikh PA
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Ealier this year, Canada claimed India may have been involved in the killing of Sikh activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar (pictured). Pic: Sikh PA

The Indian government accused Nijjar in 2020 of being a leader of a Sikh independence militant group, reported Reuters, which also said New Delhi claims he was associated with a “terrorist organisation”.

Nijjar, a 45-year-old Canadian citizen, was shot dead outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia, on 18 June.

Claims it was involved in Nijjar’s death were dismissed as “absurd” by India, which threatened to revoke the diplomatic immunity of Canadian diplomats following Mr Trudeau’s comments.

Canada responded by withdrawing 41 of its 62 diplomats from India. It also expelled an Indian diplomat from Ottawa over the affair.

Mr Trudeau has responded to the latest allegations against Gupta by saying that the US investigation underscores the need for India to take similar allegations by Canada seriously.

The White House – which has placed a high priority on improving ties with India to counter China – declined to comment directly on the charges against Gupta, but said administration officials acted quickly.

White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement: “When we were made aware of the fact that the defendant in this case had credibly indicated that he was directed to arrange the murder by an individual who is assessed to be an employee of the Indian government, we took this information very seriously and engaged in direct conversations with the Indian government at the highest levels to express our concern.”

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Joe Biden twice confuses Gaza with Ukraine as he approves US military aid airdrops

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Joe Biden twice confuses Gaza with Ukraine as he approves US military aid airdrops

President Joe Biden twice confused Gaza with Ukraine as he announced the US would provide desperately needed aid to the war-ravaged Palestinian territory.

Mr Biden, 81, confirmed on Friday that humanitarian assistance would be airdropped into Gaza – a day after the Hamas-run health ministry said 30,000 Palestinians have died since the war began last October.

“In the coming days, we’re going to join with our friends in Jordan and others who are providing airdrops of additional food and supplies”, the president said, adding the US will “seek to open up other avenues in, including possibly a marine corridor”.

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But Mr Biden twice mistakenly referred to airdrops to help Ukraine – leaving White House officials to clarify that he was in fact talking about Gaza.

Pic: Reuters
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Pic: Reuters

Mr Biden revealed the development while hosting Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Washington – as he warned “children’s lives are on the line”.

“Aid flowing to Gaza is nowhere nearly enough,” he said.

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“Now, it’s nowhere nearly enough. Innocent lives are on the line and children’s lives are on the line.

“We won’t stand by until we get more aid in there. We should be getting hundreds of trucks in, not just several.”

Mr Biden also said he hoped there would be a ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas by the time of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month which is expected to start on 10 March.

He told reporters: “We’re still working real hard at it. We’re not there yet.”

He said all sides have to agree on timing but that “they’re still far apart”.

President Biden hosted Italian premier, Giorgia Meloni at the White House on Friday Pic: Reuters
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President Biden hosted Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at the White House on Friday. Pic: Reuters

Mr Biden’s promise of airdrops came a day after dozens of Palestinians perished during a deadly aid truck incident in Gaza City.

At least 115 Palestinians were killed and more than 750 others were injured, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry, on Thursday.

Airdrops are a last resort for when things are really desperate

Airdrops are a last resort. They are inefficient, inaccurate, expensive and dangerous.

They are only chosen as an option when things are really desperate.

The White House spokesman admitted as much just after the president’s announcement: “There are no missions more complicated than humanitarian assistance airdrops,” John Kirby said.

In this case, the decision to resort to them is all the more remarkable because America is dropping aid to counter failures in a war being prosecuted with US weapons by one of its closest allies.

Israel controls the aid that gets into Gaza. To have to airdrop it is to admit a fundamental failure and a humanitarian disaster.

It’s inefficient because only small amounts of aid can be dropped at a time – palates of food parachuted from the back of planes.

It is inaccurate because you have no control over precisely where the aid will land.

It is dangerous because the aid drops could hit people as they land and because they could cause stampedes on the ground.

Usually aid is distributed with the coordination of aid officials on the ground.

It’s also dangerous for the aircrews flying over a war zone.

It is expensive because it requires significant military coordination.

In short – it is a stark illustration of just how much of a (man-made) disaster Gaza now is.

Witnesses said nearby Israeli troops opened fire as huge crowds raced to pull goods off an aid convoy.

Israel said many of the dead were trampled in a stampede linked to the chaos – and that its troops fired at some people in the crowd who they believed moved towards them in a threatening way.

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IDF: Aid convoy incident in Gaza is a tragedy

On Friday evening, the UK joined demands for an investigation into the killings, described by Foreign Secretary David Cameron as “horrific”.

Lord Cameron said there must be “an urgent investigation and accountability” – amid growing international calls for a probe into the episode.

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Analysis of the deadly Gaza aid truck incident

“This must not happen again,” he said.

While he did not directly blame Israel, he linked the deaths to the lack of aid being allowed into Gaza.

“We can’t separate what happened yesterday from the inadequate aid supplies,” Lord Cameron said.

“In February, only half the number of trucks crossed into Gaza that did in January. This is simply unacceptable.

“Israel has an obligation to ensure that significantly more humanitarian aid reaches the people of Gaza.”

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French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his “strongest condemnation” for the shootings and called for “truth, justice and respect for international law” in a post on X.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also condemned the incident on the social media platform, writing: “The desperate civilians in Gaza need urgent help, including those in the north where the UN has not been able to deliver aid in more than a week.”

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Ukraine war: Why the Baltic states on NATO’s frontline with Russia are urging their allies to ‘wake up’

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Ukraine war: Why the Baltic states on NATO's frontline with Russia are urging their allies to 'wake up'

The Baltic states have an urgent message for the UK and other NATO allies about the threat posed by Russia: “Wake up! It won’t stop in Ukraine.”

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are teaching more of their citizens how to fight and have even announced plans to build a defensive line, including bunkers, along hundreds of miles of border that separates their territories from their much larger neighbour.

Now, as concern grows within NATO about the potential for large-scale conflict returning to Europe, Sky News has travelled from northeast Estonia to southwest Lithuania to hear from soldiers, civilians and politicians who are preparing for a war they hope never to fight.

As former members of the Soviet Union, the Baltics have been sounding the alarm about the existential menace posed by Moscow ever since they joined the NATO alliance two decades ago.

Back then, though, no one really listened.

Instead, the UK and other allies were focused on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan – countering insurgents and Islamist militants is a very different type of fight than a conventional war against a peer enemy like Russia.

Adding to a collective erosion in NATO’s defences, many European states, including Britain, significantly reduced stockpiles of Cold War-era weapons, such as tanks, artillery and ammunition, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, mistakenly believing they no longer needed to be ready to fight a war of survival at a moment’s notice.

Russia’s earlier invasion of Ukraine in 2014, with the capture of Crimea and seizure of swathes of the Donbas, started to change that calculation – but only very slowly.

People in Moscow wave flags bearing the face of Vladimir Putin as they show their support for Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. Pic: Reuters
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People in Moscow show their support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Pic: Reuters

The concept of ‘deterrence by denial’

The alliance agreed to bolster its defences along the eastern flank of the Baltic states and Poland, with the deployment in 2017 of units of allied troops to all four countries – around 800 soldiers to each nation.

But this was done relatively cautiously – to minimise the risk of triggering an escalation of tensions directly between Moscow and the West as plenty of NATO states, including France and Germany, still had relatively close ties with Russia and did a lot of business.

As a result, the limited mission was not designed to prevent an invasion, but rather to provide a “tripwire” should Russian forces attack that would trigger a much larger allied response to then push them back out.

However, Vladimir Putin’s full-scale war in Ukraine on 24 February 2022 fundamentally altered that thinking too.

The allies realised once Russian troops had entered a country it would take a lot more effort to eject them, so they agreed to beef up their eastern defences even more and expanded them into four other nations.

The aim today is to prevent Russia from ever trying to invade – a concept known as “deterrence by denial”.

Throughout this evolution, the loudest voices inside NATO – urging allies to go further, faster and raising the alarm about Russia’s intentions – have been Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

They have also been amongst the strongest supporters of Ukraine and have warned that if Moscow prevails over Kyiv, it will likely try to test NATO’s defences next.

The site of a shopping centre in Kyiv that was bombed weeks after Russia's invasion in 2022. Pic: Reuters
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The site of a shopping centre in Kyiv that was bombed weeks after Russia’s invasion in 2022. Pic: Reuters

A potential soft spot for any Russian attack

The city of Narva lies on Estonia’s northeastern tip – right next door to Russia.

A vast, medieval castle, with large, stone walls and an Estonian flag fluttering high, stands at one edge of the city, next to a river that marks the border.

On the opposite bank is a second, similarly grand, historic castle, but it flies a Russian flag.

A crossing point, called the Friendship Bridge, connects Narva with the Russian city of Ivangorod.

It is only open to pedestrians after the Russian authorities closed their end to vehicle traffic for construction work at the start of February.

A historic castle in Estonia flies a Russian flag
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A historic castle in Estonia flies a Russian flag

Arnold Vaino, a police officer with the Estonian border guard, walked us on to the bridge, stopping just short of a red post that marks the halfway point and the start of Russia.

He recalled how he felt on the day the Kremlin launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine.

“Nobody feels comfortable when you hear that war has started,” he said. “But [we don’t feel] scared, for sure. But you open your eyes more wide.”

In an indication of the complexities of the geography and history of the region, the majority of residents in Narva speak Russian and some are sympathetic to Moscow.

It makes the city a potential soft spot for any Russian attack under the guise of coming to the aide of the Russian nationals who live in Narva.

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Any such move, though, would trigger an allied response under one of the founding principles of NATO – an attack on one is an attack on all.

There is no sense of fondness for the Russian government in most other parts of Estonia, including an island of about 9,000 people off the country’s western coast.

NATO commanders believe that Hiiumaa island could be another potential target for Moscow in any war with the West because of its strategic location in the Baltic Sea.

If Russian troops were to seize the territory, they would potentially have the ability to block access to the sea and isolate the Baltic states.

Such a prospect is one that the islanders are doing all they can to deter.

Estonian volunteers urge British civilians to learn to fight

We met a unit of citizen soldiers, faces painted army green, as they practised ambushes with rifles in the forest.

The volunteers – many of them middle-aged dads and the odd mum – are dubbed “the SAS” because they train on Saturdays and Sundays.

Estonia's weekend warriors are knowns as the 'SAS' because they train on Saturdays and Sundays
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Estonia’s weekend warriors are knowns as the ‘SAS’ because they train on Saturdays and Sundays

They said British civilians should also consider getting off their sofas and learning how to fight.

“It’s wrong to think that somebody else is coming to fight your war if you are not ready to defend yourself,” said Major Tanel Kapper, who commands the Estonian Defence League forces on the island.

Estonian military chiefs have doubled the size of their territorial defence force – the people who would support the much smaller professional army in a crisis – to 20,000 personnel after what Russia did in Ukraine two years ago.

That number comprises about 10,000 Defence League volunteers and the new addition of some 10,000 former conscript soldiers who are part of the military reserve.

‘We will kill as many of you as possible’

Polishing part of a rifle back at his base, a volunteer called Taavi, a father of two, said he decided to join the Defence League on Hiiumaa island along with about 14 friends last year in part as a response to the Ukraine war.

The construction worker said he did not want conflict, but was ready for combat if Russia invades.

“I have to take the weapon and try to protect my family, my home,” he said.

Major Kapper had a warning for Moscow: “It will be a bloody mess if you come here. We will definitely kill as many of you as possible.”

As for whether he had a message to other NATO countries like the UK that maybe are not doing as much to bolster their defences, the officer said: “To wake up. It won’t stop in Ukraine. If we don’t stop them, then they will come further and further.”

Latvian volunteers train at a base near Belarus
Image:
Latvian volunteers train at a base near Belarus

Latvia bulking up its military due to Russia threat

There is a similar sense of urgency in next door Latvia, which reintroduced conscription last year after becoming the only Baltic state to halt mandatory military service in 2006.

The country plans to double the size of its armed forces – professionals and reserves – to 61,000 by 2032.

“War [in Ukraine] is already happening, so it’s not a question: is Russia going to be aggressive? It already is aggressive,” said Krisjanis Karins, the Latvian foreign minister.

“The point of the draft is to beef up capable and equipped and trained reservists,” he told Sky News in an interview on the sidelines of a major security conference in Munich in February.

“It’s not replacing the professional army, it’s augmenting the professional army.”

Asked whether it would make a difference if the UK instated conscription, Mr Karins, a former prime minister, said: “I think it would make a difference if any European country and of course the larger countries, it would make a bigger difference.”

Sky News was invited to visit a training base in southeast Latvia, close to its border with Belarus, a close Russian ally, where a mix of conscripts and other recruits were going through a three-week basic training course with the National Guard.

Latvian volunteers would offer support to the regular military during a time of war
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Latvian volunteers would offer support to the regular military during a time of war

‘Every man needs to at least try military life’

The National Guard is a branch of the armed forces that is made up of volunteers. At a time of war, they would offer support to the professional military.

“Bam! Bam! Bam!” the recruits shouted, rifles raised, mimicking the sound of gunshots, as they practised a response to an ambush on a muddy shooting range surrounded by forest.

Eduard, 18, was one of seven conscripts among the group of about 20 on the range. All seven were voluntary conscripts, rather than being ordered to serve.

“I think that every man in the world needs to at least try military life,” said Eduard.

A Latvian general explained how conscription is about much more than simply generating fresh boots on the ground – it is also about growing a sense of national service and a desire for each citizen to do their bit to help protect the country.

“Everyone has the right to serve – an obligation to serve – the nation,” said Major General Andis Dilans, the chief of the joint staff of the National Armed Forces, Latvia’s second most senior commander.

“This is really the cornerstone of democracy,” he said in an interview in the capital Riga.

“Therefore, we looked at this not just as a war-fighting force of the conscription, but looking at the connection between the public and the military in case of crisis, in case of war.”

Civilians have been practising since Russia's invasion
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A Lithuanian military training exercise in a forest

How Lithuania borders a potential flashpoint

The final leg of our journey took us to the southwestern edge of Lithuania, which borders a heavily fortified Russian exclave called Kaliningrad.

The Russian territory also shares a border with Poland, another NATO state.

It means the only way for vehicles, such as lorries loaded with goods, coaches carrying passengers, or ordinary cars to travel between the exclave and mainland Russia is by transiting through Lithuania and into Belarus.

The crossing was calm when we visited, with a long queue of lorries on the Russian side, waiting to be allowed into Lithuania.

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A border guard said the number of vehicles – about 300 per day in total, moving in and out – had roughly halved since 2022 because Western sanctions had limited the types of goods that are permitted to be transited through Lithuania.

Communication between the guards on either side of a long wire, fence, topped in sections with barbed wire and bristling with cameras, had also been all but severed.

In the past, officials, who might have been stationed at the crossing point for two or three decades, would often speak with their Russian counterparts but that has stopped completely.

A mobile phone line still exists that can be called in an emergency, but the guard said that the Russian side does not tend to pick up.

The Kaliningrad. border
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The Kaliningrad border

Another potential flashpoint is a nearby strip of land, about 60 miles long, that connects Kaliningrad with Belarus and is bordered by Lithuania and Poland.

It is called the Suwalki Gap.

The concern among NATO commanders is that if Russia were to capture the corridor, it would provide another way to cut off access to the Baltic states.

Gitanas Nauseda, Lithuania’s president, summed up the response to the threat next door.

“All Baltic countries, Poland and other countries of the eastern flank of the NATO do a lot in order to utilise all the possibilities of [the] collective defence system, called NATO,” he said in an interview.

“But we also do a lot individually by increasing our defence spending, by closely cooperating with our neighbours and my country is especially active in this field.”

It is why a growing number of citizens in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are volunteering to serve.

But their ability to deter Russia may depend on whether the citizens of other allies follow suit.

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Alexei Navalny’s funeral lifts spirits as many feared hope died with Russian opposition leader

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Alexei Navalny's funeral lifts spirits as many feared hope died with Russian opposition leader

It is hard to grasp that Alexei Navalny is gone.

Navalny was a colossus of a man, whose energy, irreverence and astonishing determination touched a chord with so many in Russia who opposed Vladimir Putin‘s rule and who dreamed their country might be different.

His death felt personal to them.

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That is why so many thousands came to honour him in Moscow at the funeral that his mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, fought so hard to have.

They queued along the pavements on both sides of the church in long, orderly lines.

People crowded on to the stairways of neighbouring shops to try and get a glimpse as the coffin went into the church.

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They knew they were unlikely to get in themselves, but they wanted to be there for the ceremony before walking the 30 minutes on to the Borisovskoye cemetery in the hope they would also have their chance to say goodbye.

Pic: Reuters
People gather near the Borisovskoye cemetery during the funeral of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia, March 1, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer
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Crowds gather near the Borisovskoye cemetery during Navalny’s funeral. Pic: Reuters

Flowers laid in memory of Alexei Navalny in Moscow
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Flowers laid in memory of Alexei Navalny in Moscow

Along the way they chanted: “Alexei” and “Navalny”, but also “No to war” and “Russia will be free”.

These last were chants of old, from the days – not so long ago but they seem like a lifetime – when there were rallies in Russia.

But not “We will not forgive”, “We thank the parents for their son” or “Navalny our hero!”.

Those were unique to this moment, to its pain and emotion.

No one wanted this rally to descend into police chaos. They were careful to preserve the solemnity of the occasion and, for their part, the police did the same.

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Russian police check IDs of Navalny mourners

“It is very difficult to stay wise and not be overwhelmed with anger,” said 70-year-old Tatyana.

“It is very sad because I think I won’t see the end of this tragedy with my country, my beloved country or the tragedy of this war.

“I came here to look at people and not to feel alone.”

When Navalny died, many people said to us they felt that hope had died with him.

Lyudmila Navalnaya, the mother of late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, attends a funeral service and a farewell ceremony for her son at the Soothe My Sorrows church in Moscow, Russia, March 1, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer
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Alexei Navalny’s mother Lyudmila Navalnaya attends the funeral service for her son. Pic: Reuters/Stringer

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Unseen Navalny interview unearthed

But this turnout seemed to lift spirits.

“I feel despair and crushing sadness,” said Barbara.

“But at the same time, you feel inspired by seeing thousands of people gathering here today, despite everything they might face by doing so – and that gives you hope more than anything else.”

May it provide solace, too, to all of his supporters in exile who could not be there.

May it prove some comfort to his wife, Yulia, and their two children, who for their own safety could not attend their own father’s funeral.

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Navalny widow: ‘Putin cannot be negotiated with’

On social media, Yulia paid tribute to her husband, even as her mother sat with Lyudmila in the cemetery and watched as the mourners passed by.

“I don’t know how to live without you”, Yulia wrote, “but I will try to make you happy for me up there and proud of me.

“I don’t know if I can handle it but I will try.”

FILE PHOTO: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia attend a hearing at the Lublinsky district court in Moscow, Russia, April 23, 2015. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva/File Photo
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Navalny and his wife Yulia attend a hearing in Moscow in 2015. Pic: Reuters

His daughter, Dasha, also wrote to her father: “You gave your life for me, for Mum, for Zakhar, for Russia. And I promise that I will live my life the way you taught me, so you’re proud of me and most importantly, with the same smile on my face.”

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Alexei Navalny kept smiling, right until the end.

In his last-ever public appearance, the day before his death, via video-link from the penal colony in Russia’s Far North, he was grinning and joking with the judge and prosecutors.

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His humour was so infectious that they were laughing too.

To face the most terrifying hardships with good humour, surely that is the very essence of courage.

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