Alexei Navalny was an Amnesty ‘prisoner of conscience’ when he died

29 February 2024
What was claimed

The BBC reported that Amnesty International stripped Alexei Navalny of his ‘prisoner of conscience’ status.

Our verdict

While this is a genuine BBC article accurately reporting Amnesty’s decision to stop referring to Mr Navalny in this way in February 2021, the decision was reversed months later and Amnesty apologised.

Social media posts claiming the human rights charity Amnesty International stripped Alexei Navalny of his “prisoner of conscience” status are missing crucial context—because although this did happen, Amnesty restored this status and apologised to Mr Navalny shortly afterwards. 

Mr Navalny was an anti-corruption campaigner and opposition leader in Russia who died in a prison colony in Siberia on 16 February. 

The posts on Facebook shared a screenshot of a BBC headline saying: “Amnesty strips Alexei Navalny of ‘prisoner of conscience’ status”, with several posts claiming that “Western media previously (albeit reluctantly) admitted Navalny was a racist, xenophobic neo-Nazi agitator”. 

While this is a genuine BBC headline that accurately reported on Amnesty International’s decision in February 2021 to stop referring to Mr Navalny in this way, the decision was reversed a few months later and Mr Navalny was redesignated a “prisoner of conscience”. 

These social media posts don’t mention that the decision was reversed, or that the charity apologised to Mr Navalny, which was also covered by the BBC in a subsequent article.

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‘Prisoner of conscience’ status

According to Amnesty International, a ‘prisoner of conscience’ is “a person who has been deprived of their liberty solely because of their conscientiously held beliefs, or for discriminatory reasons relating to their ethnicity, sexuality, gender, or other identity, who has not used violence or advocated violence or hatred”.  

The charity used the term following Mr Navalny’s arrest in January 2021 “to emphasise the unjust nature of his detention” and reportedly called for his immediate and unconditional release. 

However, in February 2021, the organisation took the decision to stop using the ‘prisoner of conscience’ term for Mr Navalny, owing to “concerns relating to discriminatory statements he made in 2007 and 2008 which may have constituted advocacy of hatred”. 

The body of the BBC article that has been circulating on social media reported that the charity had been “‘bombarded’ with complaints highlighting xenophobic comments that Mr Navalny had made in the past and not renounced”. 

The organisation said in a statement in February 2021 that “After painstaking consideration, we concluded that we had made a mistake in our initial determination”. 

However, Amnesty reversed this decision in May 2021. In a statement, it said: “Following careful evaluation Amnesty International has decided to re-designate Alexei Navalny as a ‘Prisoner of Conscience’.”

It said the “Russian government and its supporters used the internal decision [to stop using the prisoner of conscience term for Mr Navalny], which we had not intended to make public, to further violate Navalny’s rights.”

It added: “When Amnesty International designates an individual as Prisoner of Conscience, this in no way involves or implies the endorsement of their views.” It also announced a review into the organisation’s use of the term.

This reversal was also reported by the BBC, and other publications at the time

A spokesperson for Amnesty International recently told reporters at Reuters that the charity “admitted to failing Navalny during a critical time and acknowledged the importance of evolving human rights perspectives, suggesting that past behaviours should not disqualify someone from being considered a [prisoner of conscience].” 

Full Fact contacted Amnesty International for comment, and we will update the article if we receive a response. 

Who was Alexei Navalny?

Mr Navalny was internationally recognised as one of the most prominent domestic critics of President Vladimir Putin. He founded the Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2011 and was the leader of the unregistered opposition party, Russia of the Future.

In 2020, Mr Navalny was treated for a near-fatal poisoning using the nerve-agent Novichok, which the Kremlin denied involvement in.

At the time of his death, Mr Navalny was serving a 19-year prison sentence for convictions of founding and funding an extremist organisation, which had been extended from an existing nine-year term for parole violations, fraud and contempt of court. 

The cause of Mr Navalny’s death has been disputed. His team reported that authorities at the penal colony said he died of “sudden death syndrome” and his death certificate reportedly says he died of natural causes. 

Others have claimed he was killed before he was due to be exchanged in a prisoner-swap, while his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, accused President Putin of using Novichok to kill him, which a Kremlin spokesperson denied

This is not the first time Full Fact has seen misleading screenshots of articles. 

We’ve recently written about a headline in The Atlantic commenting on the use of a homophobic slur that actually dates back to 2012, and a Telegraph article that was edited to feature a photo from Notting Hill Carnival rather than the generic image of a UK border sign that was actually used. 

Image courtesy of Evgeny Feldman

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