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Russia's Navalny moved to prison, but Amnesty International says he's no "prisoner of conscience"

Kremlin critic Navalny sentenced to prison
Kremlin critic Navalny sentenced to prison 04:01

Moscow — Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny was transferred to an undisclosed penal colony this week to serve his two-and-a-half-year prison sentence. His move comes as a prominent human rights organization defends its decision to strip him of "prisoner of conscience," insisting it didn't cave to pressure from Moscow.

Navalny's lawyer Vadim Kobzev said on Thursday that he went to visit the Kremlin critic in a Moscow detention facility, but was told he had been moved. The head of the national prison service later confirmed Navalny's transfer to a penal colony, but wouldn't say which one he'd been sent to.

"There is no threat to his health or life," the prisons official added.

Navalny was handed the prison sentence earlier this month for violating the terms of a previous suspended sentence. He has always dismissed all the charges against him as politically motivated.

Thousands detained during Russian protests 02:42

His arrest on January 17, as he returned to Moscow after five months of treatment in Germany for poisoning with a Soviet-era nerve agent, prompted weeks of mass protests across Russia, with thousands of his supporters and many close allies being detained. 

"Prisoner of conscience"?

Amnesty International named Navalny a "prisoner of conscience" almost as soon as he was arrested in January. This week, however, it came out that London-based rights organization had reversed its decision to use the label in its description of Navalny over remarks the politician made years ago that were deemed nationalist. 

"Concerns were subsequently raised within the Amnesty movement over the reference to Navalny as a prisoner of conscience given that Navalny had, in the past, made comments which may have amounted to the advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility," the organization said in a statement emailed to CBS News late on Thursday. 

It said the "concerns" had prompted a re-examination of Navalny's case, after which Amnesty concluded that a mistake had been made in its initial assessment. The rights group did not say what comments had sparked its reassessment, but added that some of Navalny's, "previous comments have not been publicly renounced."

The organization said it was still calling for Navalny's immediate release and an independent investigation into his poisoning, which the opposition leader has blamed squarely on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Orchestrated campaign"

Navalny has been criticized for past statements against illegal immigration, and for attending an annual nationalist march in the early 2000s. In one 2007 clip, he's heard defending nationalism, saying: "We have a right to be Russians in Russia."

He also called for the deportation of migrants, but spoke out against violence by far-right extremists. Navalny has since distanced himself from those views in public speeches, but he still promotes the idea of visa requirements for citizens of former Soviet states in Central Asia.

An update on Alexey Navalny 01:02

Earlier this week, Alexander Artemev, a spokesman for Amnesty's Russia office, told the BBC that the decision was made after the NGO was bombarded with complaints and requests to remove Navalny from the list "prisoner of conscience" list. He said it appeared to be part of an "orchestrated campaign" to discredit the politician and "impede" Amnesty's calls for his release from custody. 

There were a series comments and stories in the preceding days by pro-Kremlin media, journalists associated with them, and from Putin's sympathizers abroad, questioning Navalny's "prisoner of conscience" status.

"A genuine mistake?"

The move to delist Navalny subjected Amnesty to a fresh wave of backlash on social media – this time from his supporters and other Kremlin critics.

Alexander Golovach and Ruslan Shaveddinov, both members of Navalny's anti-corruption group, said they were going to renounce their own "prisoner of conscience" statuses, which Amnesty awarded them after their arrests several years ago. Both are now free.

Vladimir Ashurkov, Navalny's self-exiled ally based in Britain, in a conference call late on Thursday agreed that the politician's status could have been reviewed due to an orchestrated campaign to defame him. He described Navalny as Putin's most prominent opponent, and a person with "high moral principles."

"We believe a genuine mistake was made," Ashurkov said. "We will engage with Amnesty to change that."

In its statement to CBS News, Amnesty acknowledged that some of Navalny's old comments had become more prominent, "in the context of a deliberate campaign by President Putin and his supporters to discredit him," but denied that the campaign had prompted its reevaluation. 

"Amnesty International does not base its decisions on 'prisoner of conscience' status on Twitter threads, or on lobbying by journalists or government supporters," the organization insisted.

It wasn't the first time Amnesty has changed someone's "prisoner of conscience" status. The organization delisted South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela while he was in jail for advocating violence against the apartheid government. Unlike Navalny, however, Mandela's remarks were made after he was granted the status. 

The backlash against Amnesty intensified after a pro-Kremlin prankster released a recorded video call on Thursday with a representative from the organization.

"We may have done more harm than good at this time," Marie Struthers, head of Amnesty's Eastern Europe and Central Asia department, told the prankster, who was posing as one of Navalny's associates. 

Amnesty has indicated that it has no plans to rethink its delisting of Navalny. 

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