Rights group has been under pressure to condemn past statements by Kremlin critic
Alexei Navalny during a court hearing in Moscow last weekend. Photograph: Babushkinsky district court/Reuters
The Guardian-Andrew Roth in Moscow
Amnesty International has said it will cease calling Alexei Navalny a “prisoner of conscience”, following pressure to condemn anti-migrant statements he made in the 2000s as hate speech.
Employees of Amnesty International said the organisation had received messages about Navalny’s past remarks that they felt “were part of a coordinated campaign to discredit him abroad”, but nonetheless felt compelled to change his designation.
“Yes, we are no longer going to use the phrase ‘prisoner of conscience’ in regards to [Navalny] insofar as our law and policy department, having reviewed Navalny’s remarks from the mid-2000s, came to the conclusion that they meet the level of ‘hate speech’,” Alexander Artemev, Amnesty International’s media manager for Europe and central Asia, told TV Rain.
In a crowing tweet, the head of Russia’s state-funded TV network RT, Margarita Simonyan, wrote that the west was “crying that this came after our columnist used concrete examples that reminded everyone he [Navalny] is a Nazi”.
She added: “Happy Defender of the Fatherland Day, countrymen!”
Navalny was arrested in January upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from an assassination attempt carried out by individuals identified as FSB operatives. His arrest and subsequent jailing sparked nationwide protests in Russia, but his allies say they have now paused serious demonstrations until the spring.
Navalny’s offending remarks have not been specified, but the 44-year-old was engaged in nationalist politics at the time and voiced strongly anti-migrant views in several videos, including one in which he dressed as a dentist and appeared to compare immigrants to rotten teeth.
He has moved away from rightwing politics in the years since the videos were made, but has declined to renounce his past views in numerous interviews, including one with the Guardian in 2017.
Amnesty International’s change in policy was made internally and was revealed this week in an email exchange posted online by Aaron Maté, a US journalist who has been critical of Navalny.
Julie Verhaar, Amnesty International’s acting secretary general, said in emailed remarks on Wednesday evening: “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.”
She said the term “prisoner of conscience” denoted specific criteria established by Amnesty International and that “nothing Navalny has said in the past justifies his current detention”.
In another twist on Wednesday evening, the head of Amnesty International appeared to fall victim to a prank caller imitating Leonid Volkov, a close ally of Navalny’s. In a tweet that she soon deleted, Verhaar thanked Volkov for a “direct conversation just now” that he said had never happened.
“I don’t know her and I’ve never spoken with her,” he said, suggesting the call could have been from the same prank duo from Russia who have previously targeted western politicians and Elton John. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s on the basis of the same kind of messages that they make their decisions [about Navalny],” Volkov said.
Alexei Stolyarov, a member of the duo who goes by the nickname Pranker Lexus, indicated in a post on Facebook on Wednesday evening that he was indeed behind the call. “This was probably the most constructive and direct conversation in Volkov’s life,” he wrote.
Asked by a prominent Russian journalist if he had made the call, he wrote: “Who else?” He didn’t immediately respond to a message from the Guardian on Wednesday.
A spokesperson for Amnesty International was not immediately able to confirm or deny the reports of the prank phone call.