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Amnesty Move To Strip Navalny Of 'Prisoner Of Conscience' Status Sparks Outcry

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Aleksei Navalny waves from inside a glass cell during a court hearing in Moscow on February 20.

Amnesty International has withdrawn its recent designation of Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's as a "prisoner of conscience" over his alleged advocacy of violence and discrimination and comments that included hate speech, but reiterated its determination to keep fighting for his release.

Some of these comments, which Navalny has not publicly denounced, reach the threshold of advocacy of hatred."
-- Amnesty International

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.

Navalny was arrested at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport after he arrived on January 17 from Berlin, where he had been recovering from a poisoning with a Soviet-era nerve agent in August that the 44-year-old lawyer says was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin and carried out by Russian intelligence.

Krivosheev added that Navalny, whom the group named a prisoner of conscience after his arrest in Moscow last month, "has committed no crime" and that in spite of its decision regarding his status as a prisoner of conscience, "Amnesty delivered 200,000 signatures to the Russian authorities demanding Navalny's immediate release."

Navalny's anti-corruption organization has targeted many high-profile Russians, including high-ranking government officials.

In the course of his political career, Navalny has also come under criticism for his association with ethnic Russian nationalists and about statements seen as racist and dangerously inflammatory.

Still, Amnesty came under immediate criticism by political analysts and Navalny allies, who accused the rights group of caving to a pressure campaign by journalists connected to state-controlled media.

"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," said Mark Galeotti, an expert and author on Russia.

The rights group's decision was first reported by U.S. journalist Aaron Mate on February 23 and was confirmed to Mediazona and The Insider by Aleksandr Artemyev, the rights watchdog's media manager for Russia and Eurasia.

Artemyev wrote that Amnesty decided to retract the designation "in light of new information" stemming from "old videos and social-media posts in which Navalny made controversial pronouncements."

The comments attributed to Navalny in the mid-2000s were not specified, but Artemyev said they were made as Navalny's activism and challenge to Putin was gaining momentum and that their reemergence "appears to be another tactic to delegitimize Navalny's work and criticism and to weaken public outcry about his detention."

But, he added, while it could have been part of a coordinated campaign "done not out of goodwill, but maliciously," Amnesty couldn't disregard "the fact that this time the arrow hit the target," Artemyev said.

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Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), said the "procedure for assigning and depriving AI status turned out to be extremely shameful.”

"In 2018, Amnesty International called me a prisoner of conscience. I declare that I am giving up this status now and in the future since it can be deprived under the pressure of Putin's state propaganda," added Aleksandr Golovach, a lawyer with the FBK who Amnesty said at the time was detained on "spurious charges of breaking a repressive law on public gatherings."

Navalny's arrest for failing to report to the Moscow prison service -- a violation of a suspended sentence related to a 2014 conviction for embezzlement that he and critics say was politically motivated -- sparked anti-government protests in hundreds of cities and led to thousands of arrests.

On February 2, Navalny's 3 1/2-year suspended sentence was converted to real jail time. His appeal was rejected on February 20, ensuring that Putin's biggest political rival will spend about 2 1/2 years in prison, considering time already spent in detention.

In a separate case heard the same day, Navalny was fined 850,000 rubles ($11,500) on charges of slandering a World War II veteran who had participated in a Kremlin-organized promotional video.

After Amnesty recognized Navalny as a prisoner of conscience on January 17, saying his arrest was "further evidence that Russian authorities are seeking to silence him," the rights watchdog reportedly began receiving letters of complaint from unknown sources.

Putin on February 24 signed into law bills that beef up fines for the financing of rallies and disobeying police in the wake of what the Kremlin has called "unsanctioned" protests in support of Navalny.

The new laws set fines for individuals found guilty of illegally financing a rally at up to 15,000 rubles ($200), while officials and organizations guilty of such actions will be fined up to 30,000 rubles ($400) and 100,000 rubles ($1,345), respectively.

Putin also signed a law that significantly increases fines for disobeying police and security forces.

With reporting by Mike Eckel, RFE/RL's Russian Service, Current Time, Meduza, and Mediazona
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