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Kremlin Critic Navalny Transferred to Prison Outside Moscow

FILE - Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny gestures during a hearing on his charges for defamation in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia, in this photo taken from a footage provided by the Babuskinsky District Court, Feb. 16, 2021.

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has been sent to a prison outside Moscow to serve his sentence, his lawyer said Thursday, a move that came despite a demand by Europe's top human rights court for his release.

Navalny lawyer Vadim Kobzev did not immediately name the prison where Navalny was sent. Russian news reports have previously indicated that Navalny, who has been held in a maximum-security jail in Moscow, would likely be sent to a facility in western Russia.

Navalny, 44, Russian President Vladimir Putin's most vociferous foe, was arrested January 17 upon returning from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation and accused Navalny of cooperating with Western intelligence agencies — claims he has ridiculed.

Earlier this month, Navalny was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for violating the terms of his probation while convalescing in Germany. The sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated — and which the European Сourt of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled to be unlawful.

Large protests

Navalny's arrest has fueled a wave of protests that have drawn tens of thousands to the streets across Russia. Authorities have detained about 11,000 people, many of whom were fined or given jail terms ranging from seven to 15 days.

Russian officials have dismissed demands from the United States and the European Union to free Navalny and stop the crackdown on his supporters.

Moscow also rejected the ECHR ruling that, citing risks to Navalny's life in custody, ordered the Russian government to release him. The Russian government has rebuffed the court's demand as unlawful and "inadmissible" meddling in Russia's home affairs.

Earlier this week, EU foreign ministers agreed to impose new sanctions against Russian officials linked to Navalny's jailing.

Since Navalny's arrest, Russian officials and state news media have aggressively tried to discredit him, a change from the previous tactic of largely ignoring him.

Possible 'advocacy of hatred'

Some of the criticism has emphasized anti-migrant views expressed years ago as he was rising to prominence.

Amnesty International this week stripped Navalny of his designation as a "prisoner of conscience" because of those views. "Navalny had, in the past, made comments which may have amounted to advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility," the organization said in a statement Thursday.

The statement denied the move was in response to external pressure, but news reports have suggested Amnesty International was targeted in a coordinated campaign to discredit him.

"These were not independently acting activists ... these were people who would like to defame Alexey as the most prominent opponent of Mr. Putin," Vladimir Ashurkov, executive director of Navalny's anti-corruption organization, said in a conference call Thursday.

Amnesty International said rescinding the prisoner-of-conscience designation did not change its demand for Navalny to be freed.

"There should be no confusion: Nothing Navalny has said in the past justifies his current detention, which is purely politically motivated. Navalny has been arbitrarily detained for exercising his right to freedom of expression, and for this reason, we continue to campaign for his immediate release," the organization said.