Amnesty International has stripped Alexey Navalny of the “prisoner of conscience” status it had given him, saying some of the Kremlin critic’s past comments were akin to hate speech.
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera on Wednesday, the rights group said it would however continue to “fight for his freedom” – referring to the 44-year-old’s current imprisonment in Moscow.
“Amnesty International took an internal decision to stop referring to [Alexey] Navalny as a prisoner of conscience in relation to comments he made in the past. 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,” the statement said, without specifying what those comments were.
Navalny has previously advocated for nationalist, anti-immigrant policies and is regularly accused by his critics on social media of being a white supremacist.
Fifteen years ago, Navalny filmed a pro-gun rights video in which he compared people from the North Caucasus, home to many Muslims, as “cockroaches” and then pretended to shoot one with a pistol.
“Navalny has not, to the best of our knowledge, made similar pronouncements in recent years, and this 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,” Amnesty’s statement said.
A “prisoner of conscience”, Amnesty’s website says, is “someone has not used or advocated violence but is imprisoned because of who they are”.
The group’s move comes as tensions between the West and Russia mount.
This week, the European Union agreed to prepare further sanctions on Russia over the case.
Navalny was arrested on January 17, the same day Amnesty announced it would consider him a “prisoner of conscience”, as he arrived back in Moscow from Berlin.
He had been recovering in the German capital following an alleged poisoning attack he blames on the Kremlin. Russia denies those allegations and has dismissed Western criticism as meddling.
A Moscow court later jailed Navalny, ruling that he broke terms of a suspended sentence in a 2014 embezzlement case which the Kremlin foe says was politically motivated.
This month, he was also found guilty of slandering a World War II veteran.
Thousands in Russia have called for Navalny’s release since, but the protest movement has eased after huge numbers of people were arrested during rallies.