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2021.02.25 18:30

'Prisoners of conscience': A look at some of the biggest names on the list

RFE/RL2021.02.25 18:30

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny's time as an Amnesty International "prisoner of conscience" was short-lived – but not because he was released from detention.

Navalny received the designation on January 17 following his arrest at a Moscow airport by Russian authorities who said he had violated the terms of a suspended sentence stemming from a 2014 embezzlement conviction. Navalny and his supporters say that both the conviction and the alleged violation are unfounded, politically motivated, and absurd.

The subsequent conversion of the suspended sentence into more than 30 months of real prison time promised to keep the ardent Kremlin critic away from street protests for the near-term, even as he stayed in the focus of anti-government demonstrators and human rights groups such as Amnesty.

But on February 23, Amnesty withdrew the designation, citing what it said were past comments by the 44-year old anti-corruption activist that "reach the threshold of advocacy of hatred".

The term "prisoner of conscience" is widely attributed to the founder of Amnesty International, Peter Benenson, who used it in 1961 to describe two Portuguese students who had each been sentenced to seven years in prison simply for making a toast to freedom under a dictatorial government.

Read more: After Moscow fiasco, sacking EU's chief diplomat won't solve anything for Baltics – opinion

The label initially came to apply mainly to dissidents in the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc satellites, but over the years expanded to include hundreds of religious, political opposition, and media figures around the world, including countries of the former Soviet Union.

According to Amnesty's current criteria for the designation, prisoners of conscience are people who have "not used or advocated violence but are imprisoned because of who they are (sexual orientation, ethnic, national, or social origin, language, birth, color, sex or economic status) or what they believe (religious, political or other conscientiously held beliefs)".

Navalny's delisting has been tied by Amnesty to comments he made in the mid-2000s, as his star as a challenger to President Vladimir Putin and as an anti-corruption crusader in Russia was on the rise, but also as he came under criticism for his association with ethnic Russian nationalists and for statements seen as racist and dangerously inflammatory.

And while the rights watchdog acknowledged that the flood of requests it received to review Navalny's past statements appeared to originate from pro-Kremlin critics of Navalny, Amnesty ultimately determined that he no longer fit the bill for the designation, even as the organisation continued to call for his immediate release from prison as he was being "persecuted for purely political reasons".

The "prisoner of conscience" designation is a powerful tool in advocating for the humane treatment of people who hold different religious, political, and sexual views than the powers that be – in some cases helping to lead to the release of prisoners.

Here's a look at some of the biggest names who have been or remain on the list.

In Russia

Russia is a virtual cornucopia of prisoners of conscience, with formidable political opposition figures, journalists, LGBTQ+ rights activists, and advocates for ethno-national rights gracing the list.

Political opposition

Boris Nemtsov, the opposition politician who was shot dead in 2015, received the designation in 2011, along with activists Ilya Yashin and Eduard Limonov, after they attended a rally in Moscow in support of free assembly.

Read more: ‘Authoritarian regimes are very fragile.’ Interview with Zhanna Nemtsova

Big business

Former Yukos owners Mikhail Khodorkovsky's and Platon Lebedev's listing the same year relating to what Amnesty called "deeply flawed and politically motivated" charges that led to their imprisonment years earlier drew sharp condemnation from the Russian Foreign Ministry.

'Terror network'

In February 2020, Amnesty applied the designation to seven men standing trial in central Russia on what it called "absurd" charges relating to membership in a "nonexistent 'terrorist' organisation".

Days later, all seven members were convicted and sentenced to prison for belonging to a "terrorist cell" labeled by authorities as "Network" that the authorities claimed planned to carry out a series of explosions in Russia during the 2018 presidential election and World Cup soccer tournament.

Religious persecution

Aleksandr Gabyshev – a shaman in the Siberian region of Yakutia who has made several attempts to march on foot to Moscow "to drive President Vladimir Putin out of the Kremlin" – was briefly placed in a psychiatric hospital in September 2019 after he called Putin "evil" and marched for 2,000 kilometers in an attempt to reach the capital.

"The Russian authorities' response to the shaman’s actions is grotesque," Amnesty said. "Gabyshev should be free to express his political views and exercise his religion and beliefs just like anyone else."

In May 2020, riot police raided Gabyshev's home and took him to a psychiatric hospital because he allegedly refused to be tested for Covid-19. Amnesty called for his immediate release.

But in January, Gabyshev was again forcibly taken to a psychiatric clinic after announcing he planned to resume his trek to Moscow to oust Putin.

In Ukraine

Prominent Ukrainian filmmaker and activist Oleg Sentsov made the list after he was arrested in Crimea in May 2014 after the peninsula was illegally annexed by Russia.

Amnesty repeatedly called for the release of Sentsov after he was sentenced to 20 years in prison on a "terrorism" conviction in what the rights watchdog declared was an "unfair trial on politically motivated charges".

Read more: Ukraine’s Sentsov to undergo rehabilitation in Latvia

After five years in prison in Russia, Sentsov was released in a prisoner swap between Kyiv and pro-Russia separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Sentsov was far from the only Ukrainian to be taken down for criticising Russia's seizure of Crimea, prompting Amnesty to call for the release of all "all Ukrainian political prisoners" being held in Russia.

Among them is the first Jehovah's Witness to be sentenced by Russian authorities in the annexed territory, Sergei Filatov. The father of four was handed a sentence of six years in prison last year for being a member of an extremist group in what Amesty called "the latest example of the wholesale export of Russia’s brutally repressive policies".

In Belarus

In Belarus, some of the biggest names to be declared "prisoners of conscience" are in the opposition to Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader whose claim to have won a sixth-straight presidential term in August has led to months of anti-government protests.

Viktor Babariko, a former banker whose bid to challenge Lukashenko was halted by his arrest as part of what Amnesty called a "full-scale attack on human rights" ahead of the vote, went on trial on February 17 on charges of money laundering, bribery, and tax evasion.

Fellow opposition member Paval Sevyarynets, who has been in custody since June, was charged with taking part in mass disorder related to his participation in rallies during which demonstrators attempted to collect signatures necessary to register presidential candidates other than Lukashenko.

The popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky was jailed after expressing interest in running against Lukashenko and remains in prison. Three of his associates went on trial in January on charges of organising mass disorder in relation to the mass protests that broke out after the election.

Tikhanovsky's wife, Svetlana TIkhanovskaya, took his place as a candidate and considers herself the rightful winner of the election.

This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and was edited for brevity by LRT English.