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26 February 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 6:45am

Was Amnesty International right to strip Alexei Navalny of “prisoner of conscience” status?

A person may have made hateful statements but they can still be wrongfully imprisoned.  

By Emily Tamkin

Amnesty International has this week announced it will strip Alexei Navalny, the prominent opposition figure in Russia, of his status as a “prisoner of conscience”.

The anti-corruption activist was poisoned last summer in a nerve agent attack. There is evidence that the Russian state itself was responsible, but after recovering in Germany, Navalny returned to Russia in January despite knowing that he would be arrested if he did. He has since been sentenced to prison on charges that are widely seen as trumped up.

[Hear more from Emily on the World Review podcast]

Amnesty had subsequently labelled him a “prisoner of conscience”, someone imprisoned for his political views. But, this week, the organisation said it had been “bombarded” by complaints about Navalny’s past use of hate speech and had decided to change the designation. Some of these complaints reportedly cited tweets from a freelance writer who has been published by the RT TV network, a pro-Kremlin outlet formerly known as Russia Today, in which the writer accused Navalny of racism. The RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan celebrated the decision.

The issue is not whether or not Navalny has made hateful, inflammatory remarks. He has. He has appeared to liken immigrants to cockroaches. He has called Georgians rodents (the word for “Georgian” sounds similar to the word “rodent” in Russian; that Navalny was playing with hate speech does not make it less hateful). And while he has moved away from publicly positioning himself as an ardent nationalist in more recent years, he has been given opportunities to apologise for his comments, and he hasn’t.

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It would be one thing had Amnesty not known about his past remarks, or known and decided not to make Navalny a prisoner of conscience in the first place. But Amnesty did know. The organisation has said it believed the past statements were “not relevant” because of his political plight. His political plight, though, hasn’t changed. What has changed is the number of complaints.

Amnesty’s acting secretary general Julia Verhaar said on Wednesday: “The speculation around Amnesty International’s use of the term ‘prisoner of conscience’ is detracting attention from our core demand that [Navalny] be freed immediately.” But the removal of the term detracted attention further, making the story all about the label, and giving pro-Kremlin outlets the opportunity to boast that theirs is the correct narrative. 

There is a conversation to be had about the way “Western” individuals and institutions can build up opposition figures in other countries, implying that they’re more liberal, Western-leaning or more democratically inclined than they are. Likewise, there are discussions to be had about the role that ethno-nationalism has played in Russian opposition movements. That is not the conversation now, which risks turning into a debate over whether or not Navalny is “good” or “hateful”, bypassing the real question of whether a person can have made troubling statements and still be wrongfully imprisoned.

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Two things can be true at the same time. Navalny can have made hateful, ethnically charged remarks, and he can also have been sentenced to prison because of his prominence as an opposition figure and his work fighting corruption in Russia. It’s possible that, in the future, this will impact the way Amnesty International gives out the title of “prisoner of conscience”. Right now, however, it seems to have enhanced Kremlin-friendly talking points and little else.

[See also: What Alexei Navalny’s jailing means for the Russian opposition]