Amnesty criticised after stripping Alexei Navalny’s ‘prisoner of conscience’ status

Spokesperson for jailed opposition leader claims human rights group was ‘fed crap’ by Russian sources

Alexei Navalny on his return to Russia from Berlin.
Alexei Navalny tries to take his seat on his flight from Berlin back to Moscow in January
(Image credit: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images)

Amnesty International has come in for criticism after stripping Alexei Navalny of his status as a “prisoner of conscience”.

The human rights group, which recognised the Russian opposition leader as a prisoner of conscience after his arrest last month, said it had reversed its decision “in light of new information” about comments Navalny has made in the past about migrants from Central Asia.

Amnesty said it had been “bombarded” with complaints about Navalny’s views and “couldn’t ignore them”, but a spokesperson for the organisation in Moscow told the BBC that he believes the complaints were part of an “orchestrated campaign” to discredit Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic.

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An anonymous Amnesty employee also told Russian news site Mediazona that the campaign may have been led by “people in different countries at Russia Today (RT)”, the Kremlin-funded news organisation. They added that at least two complaints cited a Twitter thread by RT columnist Katya Kazbek in which she called Navalny an “avowed nationalist and racist”.

In 2006, Navalny co-founded Narod, “a nationalist-democratic movement”, and also attended the Russian march, an annual rally in Moscow of “nationalist and ultra-right groups”, The Times reports.

In a series of online videos entitled “Become a Nationalist”, he also compared people from the North Caucasus, which is home to many Muslims, to “cockroaches” and said that homeowners should be able to use lethal force to defend their homes.

Navalny’s “nationalist streak” has “made it difficult for the Kremlin to portray him as a puppet of the West”, Politico says. However, Amnesty said that some of Navalny’s remarks “reach the threshold of hate speech, which contradicts Amnesty’s definition of a prisoner of conscience”, The Moscow Times adds.

Leonid Volkov, chief of staff for Navalny’s campaign during the 2018 presidential election, tweeted that Amnesty had been “fed crap” by the Russian state and “liked it”. Kira Yarmysh, a spokeswoman for Navalny, added in a tweet that the decision was made at the request of “state propagandists”, describing the move as “a total disgrace”.

This is not the first time Amnesty has withdrawn prisoner of conscience status from a well-known political figure. In 1964, it disqualified Nelson Mandela after he defended the African National Congress’s use of organised political violence.

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