Navalny's Family and Supporters are Laying the Opposition Leader to Rest After His Death in Prison

(AP) -- Under a heavy police presence, hundreds of people bade farewell in Moscow on Friday to Alexei Navalny at his funeral after his still-unexplained death two weeks ago in an Arctic penal colony.

The funeral followed a battle with authorities over the release of the body of President Vladimir Putin's fiercest critic. His supporters said several churches in Moscow refused to hold the service for the man who crusaded against official corruption and organized big protests. Many Western leaders blamed the death on the Russian leader, an accusation the Kremlin angrily rejected.

Navalny's team eventually got permission from the Church of the Icon of the Mother of God Soothe My Sorrows, which was encircled by crowd-control barriers on Friday. Hours before the funeral started, hundreds waited to enter under the watch of police.

Western diplomats were spotted in the long line, along with presidential hopefuls Boris Nadezhdin and Yekaterina Duntsova. Both wanted to run against Putin in the upcoming presidential elections and opposed his war in Ukraine; neither was allowed on the ballot.

After the hearse arrived at the church, the coffin was taken out of the vehicle, as the crowd applauded and chanted: "Navalny! Navalny!" Some also shouted: "You weren't afraid, neither are we!"

A photo from inside the church showed an open casket with Navalny's body covered with red and white flowers, and his mother sitting beside it holding a candle.

Navalny's father was also present, but it wasn't clear who else in his family attended.

His widow, Yulia Navalnaya, just two days ago addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France; his daughter is a student at the Stanford University, and the whereabouts of his son are unknown.

The politician's closest associates have all left Russia under pressure and watched the funeral, footage of which was streamed live on his YouTube channel, from abroad.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov urged those gathering in Moscow and other places not to break the law, saying any "unauthorized (mass) gatherings" are violations.

A burial was to follow at the nearby Borisovskoye Cemetery, where police also showed up in force. Crowds from the church marched there after the funeral service ended, chanting: "No to war" and "Love is more powerful than fear."

Navalny's mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, spent eight days trying to get authorities to release the body following his Feb. 16 death at Penal Colony No. 3 in the town of Kharp, in the Yamalo-Nenets region about 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles) northeast of Moscow.

Even on Friday itself, the morgue where the body was being held delayed its release, according to Ivan Zhdanov, Navalny's close ally and director of his Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Authorities originally said they couldn't turn over the body because they needed to conduct post-mortem tests. Navalnaya made a video appeal to Putin to release it so she could bury her son with dignity.

At least one funeral director said he had been "forbidden" to work with Navalny's supporters, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on social media. They also struggled to find a hearse.

"Unknown people are calling up people and threatening them not to take Alexei's body anywhere," Yarmysh said Thursday.

Russian authorities still haven't announced the cause of death for Navalny, who was 47.

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.

His Foundation for Fighting Corruption and his regional offices were designated as "extremist organizations" by the Russian government in 2021.

His widow accused Putin and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin of trying to block a public funeral.

"We don't want any special treatment -- just to give people the opportunity to say farewell to Alexei in a normal way," Yulia Navalnaya wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. In a speech to European lawmakers on Wednesday, she also expressed fears that police might interfere with the gathering or would "arrest those who have come to say goodbye to my husband."

Moscow authorities refused permission for a separate memorial event for Navalny and slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on Friday, citing COVID-19 restrictions, according to politician Yekaterina Duntsova said. Nemtsov, a 55-year-old former deputy prime minister, was shot to death as he walked on a bridge adjacent to the Kremlin on the night of Feb. 27, 2015.

Yarmysh also urged Navalny's supporters around the world to lay flowers in his honor Friday.

"Everyone who knew Alexei says what a cheerful, courageous and honest person he was," Yarmysh said Thursday. "But the greater truth is that even if you never met Alexei, you knew what he was like, too. You shared his investigations, you went to rallies with him, you read his posts from prison. His example showed many people what to do when even when things were scary and difficult."

Zhdanov, the Navalny ally, said that the funeral had initially been planned for Thursday -- the day of Putin's annual state-of-the-nation address -- but no venue agreed to hold it then.

In an interview with the independent Russian news site Meduza, Zhdanov said authorities had pressured Navalny's relatives to "have a quiet family funeral."