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Amnesty Rescinds 'Prisoner Of Conscience' Designation For Russia Activist Navalny

In a photo taken last week at Babushkinsky District Court, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny gestures during a hearing.
In a photo taken last week at Babushkinsky District Court, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny gestures during a hearing.

Amnesty International says it no longer considers jailed Russian anti-Kremlin activist Alexei Navalny a "prisoner of conscience," citing past comments he's made that "reach the threshold of advocacy of hatred."

The rights group declared Navalny a prisoner of conscience in January following his arrest upon returning to Russia from Germany, where he received treatment after a near-fatal exposure to what doctors believe was a Soviet-era nerve agent, known as Novichok, which has been used in the past in assassination attempts carried out by Russian intelligence. The Kremlin denies the attack, which is viewed by Navalny supporters and western nations as an effort to eliminate a troublesome critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Earlier this month, Navalny was sentenced to 32 months in prison on charges that he broke the terms of a probation agreement tied to a 2014 embezzlement conviction. Navalny has called that case, and others against him, politically motivated.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Amnesty said referring to Navalny that it would "continue to fight for his freedom," but that the organization had "taken an internal decision to stop referring to Aleksei Navalny as a prisoner of conscience in relation to comments he made in the past."

"Some of these comments, which Navalny has not publicly denounced, reach the threshold of advocacy of hatred, and this is at odds with Amnesty's definition of a prisoner of conscience," the statement said.

Asked by NPR to provide specifics about the "past comments" the organization referred to, Amnesty declined. However, in a follow up statement, Julie Verhaar, Amnesty's acting secretary general, referred to speculation surrounding the decision on Navalny, saying it is "detracting attention" from the organization's efforts to win his release.

"This distraction only serves the Russian authorities, who have jailed Navalny on politically motivated charges, simply because he dared to criticize them," Verhaar said.

"We note that some of Aleksei Navalny's past comments have been actively used by his opponents to discredit him," Verhaar added.

Amnesty International says it uses seven criteria to decide whether someone is a prisoner of conscience, determining, among other things, that the person "has not used or advocated violence but is imprisoned because of who they are (sexual orientation, ethnic, national or social origin, language, birth, colour, sex or economic status) or what they believe (religious, political or other conscientiously held beliefs)."

Navalny, who has become the country's leading opposition figure and anti-corruption champion, has nonetheless long been controversial – including among Russia's liberals. Some of them have questioned overtly nationalistic statements that he made early in his career targeting migrants and ethnic groups in Russia's southern Caucasus region. His allies insist that his positions have evolved over time and suggest that Amnesty may have fallen for a coordinated online campaign by pro-Kremlin bloggers to discredit the opposition figure.

In recent days, videos of Navalny have been widely circulated on social media. In one that appears to be several years old, Navalny compares Chechen rebels to "cockroaches" and suggests that a pistol is the best way to eliminate them. In another video from 2007, Navalny espouses strong nationalistic views, saying, "We have a right to be (ethnic) Russians in Russia. And we'll defend that right."

To protest Amnesty's decision, an attorney for Navalny's FBK anticorruption group was quoted by Reuters as saying he would renounce his own "prisoner of conscience" status that Amnesty gave him in 2018.

Speaking to NPR's Weekend Edition in January, Julia Davis, a Russian media and disinformation expert, said Navalny "still has nationalist leanings" and among other things, supported Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, which was widely condemned internationally.

"No one could say that he is in perfect alignment with all of the Western values," Davis told host Scott Simon. "But there again, that's not what he aims to represent. What he mainly represents is the possibility that the Russians might be the ones to decide who gets to lead Russia."

Charles Maynes in Moscow contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.