Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny moved from jail to unknown location, says lawyer

Navalny is seen inside a secure dock at a court in Moscow, in a still image from video. PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW (AFP) - Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has been transferred from a Moscow jail to an unknown location, his aides said on Thursday (Feb 25), suggesting he may be beginning a prison sentence condemned as politically motivated.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's most prominent opponent was this month sentenced to more than two years in a penal colony for breaching his parole terms while recovering in Germany from a poisoning attack.

Navalny lawyer Olga Mikhailova said the defence team did not know where Navalny was being taken but suggested he could be transferred to a penal colony.

"They didn't tell anyone where he is being sent," Mikhailova told AFP.

Navalny's right-hand man Leonid Volkov said the opposition politician's family has not been informed of his whereabouts, expressing concern over lack of transparency.

Eva Merkacheva, a member of Moscow's public commission that monitors detainees' human rights, said she was confident Navalny had been sent to a penal colony.

"There are just no other options," she told AFP, adding by law the opposition politician should serve his sentence in a prison not far from the capital.

Navalny spent months recovering in Germany from the attack with nerve agent Novichok that saw him fall ill on a flight in Siberia in August. Russia has denied involvement.

He was immediately arrested on return to Moscow in mid-January, and Amnesty International declared Navalny a prisoner of conscience.

This week the London-based activist group said it no longer recognised Navalny as a prisoner of conscience because of past "advocacy of hatred" comments, although it vowed to still push for his release.

Amnesty's decision sparked an outcry among Navalny supporters.

On Thursday, prominent Russian pranksters said they tricked top Amnesty directors into admitting that their decision to rescind Navalny's status of prisoner of conscience "has done a lot of damage."

'Tricked and humiliated'

The pranksters known as Vovan and Lexus released a video recording of a 15-minute Teams call with Julie Verhaar, the watchdog's acting secretary-general, and two other directors.

In the video the pranksters posed as Volkov, Navalny's right-hand man, and are heard discussing the fallout from Amnesty's decision.

"We are conscious that what happened has done a lot of damage," Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said in the video.

Marie Struthers, the watchdog's director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said Amnesty wanted to launch a social media campaign to "steer the conversation away" from the group's decision and the fallout.

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Vovan, whose real name is Vladimir Kuznetsov, told AFP the pair were surprised that the group's directors had agreed to speak "very quickly".

Amnesty declined to comment on the phone call.

In a statement earlier on Thursday, the group acknowledged that "the poor timing" of its decision "has unintentionally distracted from the campaign for Navalny's immediate release."

"We deeply regret any damage this may have caused to the campaign to free Navalny," said the statement.

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Amnesty also complained that the controversy around its use of the prisoner of conscience term "has been weaponised by the Kremlin, against us and against those who are expressing critical views against the Russian government."

Volkov slammed the Amnesty leadership.

"In 2021, you can't run a charity with over 300M euro annual budget (!) and to allow yourself to be tricked and humiliated in such (a) way," he tweeted.

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