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Russians Bid Farewell To Human Rights Veteran Lyudmila Alekseyeva

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WATCH: Mourners Bid Farewell To Russian Human Rights Icon

MOSCOW -- Russians and others have paid their final respects to Lyudmila Alekseyeva, including Russian President Vladimir Putin whose rule was criticized by the Russian human rights veteran.

Alekseyeva, who challenged Soviet and Russian leaders for decades, died at a Moscow hospital on December 8 at the age of 91.

At a ceremony at Moscow's House of Journalists on December 11, colleagues and foreign dignitaries paid their last respects to Alekseyeva, including U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman and Mikhail Fedotov, head of Russia's Human Rights Council.

Opposition politician and anticorruption activist Aleksei Navalny was also in attendance.

Many of those in attendance wore red armbands with a black stripe, a symbol of mourning.

Amid little fanfare, President Vladimir Putin laid flowers at the open casket and spoke to Alekseyeva's family.

Despite Putin's early patronage, including his naming her to an advisory council, Alekseyeva was a leading critic of Russia's second war in Chechnya, launched in 1999 during Putin's first term as prime minister, and of Putin's weakening of Russia's democratic institutions.

The liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky suggested Putin's presence was an empty gesture.

"If he were sincere, the president would amnesty all political prisoners -- [imprisoned Ukrainian film director Oleh] Sentsov and others. That would be a genuine tribute. This is just words and gestures," Yavlinsky wrote on his Facebook page.

Lev Ponomaryov, a leading human rights activist who is serving a 16-day jail term for organizing “illegal rallies” via the Internet, was barred from attending the ceremony.

A Moscow court on December 10 rejected a request to allow him to be released to attend Alekseyeva’s funeral.

Russian poet Lev Rubinshtein recalled Alekseyeva's sense of humor and warmth.

"Human rights defenders are incredibly important both in today's Russia and in the Soviet Union," he told RFE/RL. "Alekseyeva was a symbol of this movement. Her work and her personal characteristics aligned perfectly - she had sympathy for everyone, and it seems she wanted to save everyone."

Aleksei Levinson of the Levada Center told RFE/RL that Alekseyeva's moral ethic and her commitment to her ideals was unusual even among contemporary rights activists.

"Her impact was colossal. Her name stands alongside that of [Soviet-era dissident and activist Andrei] Sakharov and other prominent figures" in dissident history.

Danil Brazhnikov never met Alekseyeva personally, but the 17-year-old traveled from Samara to pay his respects as a supporter of her work. He has long been interested in the dissident movement of the 1970s and '80s. "She was the last of that generation" of dissidents, he said.

Human rights defenders and diplomats have praised Alekseyeva and her commitment to the struggle for justice in the Soviet Union and Russia as an inspirational example.

One of the founders of the human rights organization Moscow Helsinki Group, Alekseyeva faced death threats throughout her career and was forced into exile by Soviet authorities in 1977.

She returned to Russia in 1993 after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and continued her work energetically, but suspicion of nongovernmental organizations under Putin's rule increasingly impeded her activities.

Alekseyeva was cremated at Moscow's Troyekurovskoye cemetery later on December 11. Ekho Moskvy radio cited her son Mikhail as saying her ashes will be taken to the United States, where her husband, mother, and another son are buried.

With reporting in Moscow by RFE/RL correspondent Matthew Luxmoore
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