Amnesty International Strips Navalny of ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ Status for ‘Hate Speech’

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, his wife Yulia, opposition politician Lyubov Sobol and other demonstrators march in memory of murdered Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov in downtown Moscow on February 29, 2020. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP) (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

Amnesty International (AI) said Wednesday that it would remove “prisoner of conscience” status from Russian dissident and prisoner Alexei Navalny after deeming some of his past comments “hate speech” or advocacy of violence.

The organization said it would nevertheless continue pushing for Navalny’s release from prison.

Navalny was arrested in January upon returning to Moscow from Berlin, where he received treatment for a chemical-weapons attack that he believes (and has taken steps to prove) Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered. Navalny recently received a two-and-a-half year prison sentence, ostensibly for violating his parole by seeking treatment for his Novichok poisoning in Germany.

AI declared Navalny a “prisoner of conscience” soon after his arrest and demanded his immediate release, along with the release of journalists arrested with him at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow.

“Aleksei Navalny’s arrest is further evidence that Russian authorities are seeking to silence him. His detention only highlights the need to investigate his allegations that he was poisoned by state agents acting on orders from the highest levels,” AI Moscow Director Natalia Zviagina said January 17.

“Aleksei Navalny has been deprived of his liberty for his peaceful political activism and exercising free speech. Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience and calls for his immediate and unconditional release. The organization reiterates its call to the Russian authorities to open a criminal investigation into Navalny’s poisoning and ensure that all those responsible are brought to justice in fair trial proceedings,” AI said in its statement denouncing Navalny’s arrest.

AI told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) on Wednesday that Navalny’s status as a prisoner of conscience had been rescinded, offering only a vague explanation for the decision:

Denis Krivosheev, deputy director of Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia office, confirmed to RFE/RL in an e-mailed response on February 24 that the “internal decision” was made “in relation to comments [Navalny] made in the past” and that the decision “does not change our resolve to fight for his immediate release, and for an end to his politically motivated persecution by the Russian authorities.“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,” Krivosheev said, without specifying which comments he was referring to. Krivosheev said AI still demands Navalny’s release and has delivered a petition with 200,000 signatures to the Russian government.

The BBC obtained more specifics from AI spokesman Alexander Artemev in Moscow, who said Navalny’s status was rescinded after the human rights organization was “bombarded” with complaints about comments the imprisoned Russian dissident made in the 2000s.

Artemev said the organization suspected this was an “orchestrated campaign” to discredit Navalny, but it went along with the effort anyway and removed his prisoner of conscience designation because he appeared to “compare immigrants to cockroaches” in a video from 15 years ago.

“We had too many requests. We couldn’t ignore them,” the AI spokesman said, before conceding those requests appear to have been orchestrated by a single shadowy activist who has a history of parroting Russian propaganda in a bid to “delegitimize Navalny’s work and criticism and to weaken public outcry about his detention”:

Some of the calls to revoke Navalny’s prisoner of conscience status quoted a Twitter thread by Katya Kazbek, a freelance columnist published by the pro-Kremlin channel RT amongst others. She reposted Navalny’s controversial videos after his arrest in January, describing him as an “avowed racist” and accusing supporters of “whitewashing” his nationalism. Ms Kazbek, a pseudonym, describes herself online as a “feminist, LGBT researcher, citizen of the world”, but her posts include praise of Stalin and also echo Kremlin claims that Alexei Navalny is controlled by the US government.Since Navalny’s return to Russia in January after recovering from the attempt to kill him, other English-language Twitter accounts have regularly latched on to posts to slam him as a “vile white supremacist”.

Reuters cited a 2007 video in which Navalny “called for the deportation of migrants to prevent the rise of far-right violence” and declared, “We have a right to be Russians in Russia, and we’ll defend that right.”

Navalny supporters blasted AI for its decision, noting that Russian state media immediately applauded the downgrade to Navalny’s status and claimed Kazbek as one of its “columnists.”

“It’s shocking and shameful. … Navalny is deemed no longer to be a ‘prisoner of conscience’ because his views are now deemed ‘hate speech’? I forgot that only woke pacifists can experience persecution,” author Mark Galeotti said on Twitter, as quoted by RFE.

Navalny ally Leonid Volkov snorted that AI was “fed crap and liked it.” Aleksandr Golovach, a lawyer who works with Navalny’s FBK anti-corruption foundation, voluntarily renounced his own status as a prisoner of conscience to protest AI submitting to “the pressure of Putin’s state propaganda.”

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