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Alexei Navalny’s Death in Custody Must Be Independently and Effectively Investigated: PHR

The death in custody of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny demands a rigorous, independent investigation in line with international standards, said Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today.  

The 47-year-old Navalny died suddenly, according to the Federal Penitentiary Service, in the IK-3 penal colony of the subarctic Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District at 2:19 pm Moscow time on February 16, 2024.  

“Russian authorities are responsible for the well-being of anyone in their custody, and in the case of Navalny, an outspoken critic of the government who had earlier survived being poisoned, the circumstances are suspicious and require a proper investigation,” said Michele Heisler, MD, MPA, PHR medical director and professor of public health and internal medicine at University of Michigan. 

Both international humanitarian law and international human rights law require a prompt, independent, impartial, thorough, effective, and transparent investigation to ascertain causes of all deaths that occur in state custody, such as in prisons and other places of detention. These investigations must follow internationally accepted practical guidelines delineated in, for example, the Revised United Nations Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Guidelines for Investigating Deaths in Custody

“In light of the failure of Russian authorities to investigate the earlier poisoning attempt against Navalny, as determined by the European Court of Human Rights just last year, Russian authorities must allow an international, independent, and impartial investigation to establish the cause of Navalny’s death,” Heisler added. 

Central to this investigation, there must be a full forensic autopsy (external and internal examination) with additional necessary laboratory studies, including DNA, toxicology, and other tissue sampling and assays, imaging, and other analyses. Among necessary components of the forensic medical examination are: 

  • The well-qualified forensic physicians conducting the forensic medical examinations must be granted complete independence throughout the investigation and when presenting its results.  
  • All evidence must be well-documented and preserved, with a detailed written record of the entire process and findings, illustrated with sketches and good-quality photographs. Such documentation is essential so that all evidence can be reviewed afterwards by external experts. 
  • The chain of custody for all gathered evidence must be documented and maintained. 
  • The written report must describe all significant findings from the examinations and analyses and correlate findings with cause and manner of death. 

PHR also calls for authorities to respect the internationally recognized right of the victim’s next of kin to be fully informed, have access to the case file, and be permitted to have a medical or other qualified representative in attendance at the autopsy. After all postmortem examinations have been completed, the body must be returned to the next of kin, who then may choose to have a second independent autopsy completed.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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