By Rajiv Shah
Quoting a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) report, “Amnesty Move To Strip Navalny Of ‘Prisoner Of Conscience’ Status Sparks Outcry”, a Moscow-based journalist, Fred Weir, whom I peripherally during my Moscow days (1986-93), has brought into the light problems in which such top human rights organisations like Amnesty International, find themselves in while defending what they called “prisoners of conscience.
In a Facebook post, Weir, who is son-in-law of Prof Tatiana Shaumian, a veteran incisive Indologist, whom I used to meet for doing stories on Russian (then Soviet) perceptions on India and Indo-Soviet relations, points to how the recently arrested Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny “is an extremely problematic hero” and Amnesty dropping him as a “prisoner of conscience” is suggests the human rights group apparent “ignorance.”
“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.
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.