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Former Amnesty Employee Appealing Employment Tribunal Decision in Navalny Controversy

Aisha Jung, who had worked for Amnesty International for 17 years, told Byline Times that she took on legal action after objecting to the award of the prisoner of conscience status

Aisha Jung. Photo: Amnesty International

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A former Muslim employee of Amnesty International is appealing the decision of a recent employment tribunal after claiming that the human rights organisation “attempted to deny my Muslim identity” during the hearing. 

Aisha Jung, was a Senior Campaigner on Belarus, working out of Amnesty’s International Secretariat in London when she challenged the organisation’s decision in May 2021 to designate the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as a prisoner of conscience (POC) – despite his unapologetic history of anti-immigrant and racist statements.

Ms Jung, who had worked for Amnesty International for 17 years, told Byline Times that she took on legal action after objecting to the award of the status, and arguing that Mr Navalny had incited violence against Muslims. Mr Navalny was designated a POC after he was arrested on his return to Russia in January 2021. 

The designation was controversial and was withdrawn the next month with Amnesty claiming that after painstaking consideration they had concluded that some of his comments “reached the threshold of advocacy of hatred, at odds with our definition of a POC.” However, the status was restored in May 2021 after an outcry, along with an apology to Mr Navalny.

The Byline Times has now seen Amnesty’s own internal analysis of the decision to withdraw Mr Navalny’s POC status in February 2021. The document is important to Ms Jung’s case as she pointed out how it contradicts what the organisation argued during the tribunal hearing. 

Ms Jung described the POC decision as “shocking and unprecedented in the organisation’s history” and raised an initial internal grievance in the same month of the May 2021 designation. But within a week of raising the grievance, senior management quickly began discussing how to accept Ms Jung’s resignation, even though she had not resigned.

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Ms Jung said she was unsurprised to find this attitude from senior leaders at the organisation as an independent report from October 2020 found staff had no faith in Amnesty’s grievance process. In addition, the report also found incidents of overt racism at its international secretariat, including senior staff using the P-word and the N-word.

Ms Jung said that her case demonstrates a “hierarchy of racism” that has played out during the tribunal process, and exposes how the organisation is “whitewashing Mr Navalny’s racist history because it is of political expediency to the West”. 

However, Amnesty maintains the judgement substantiates a consistent response to the POC decision.

‘Something of an Ambush’

Ms Jung brought a number of claims against her former employer, including whistleblowing, religious and disability discrimination, unfair dismissal. Following a successful preliminary hearing in February, an employment judge ruled that Amnesty’s decision to award POC status to Mr Navalny “caused the claimant to suffer from anxiety, stress and a sense of isolation”.

This meant Ms Jung was able to make her case for disability discrimination along with her other claims, in particular, stating that Amnesty had failed to consider making reasonable adjustments before deciding to terminate her employment on 9 May 2022.

However, the follow-up hearing in March and April did not go as well. Ultimately, the tribunal judge dismissed each of Ms Jung’s claims, several of which are being appealed. 

The 50-year-old told Byline Times that in an extraordinary turn of events, given Islamophobia is central to her case, lawyers acting on behalf of Amnesty “attempted to deny my Muslim identity”.

The hearing judgement, seen by the Byline Times, shows a “dispute over the question of the claimant’s status as a Muslim caused a degree of contention in the hearing before us” and that “the claimant’s position (and that of her representative) was that this was offensive and something of an ambush”. 

Ms Jung said: “I have never felt so harassed and offended as by the questions regarding my Islamic identity by Amnesty’s lawyers which were as ignorant as they were sinister. In a total violation of my right to private life, the religion of my dead parents, my husband and children were queried.”

Ms Jung’s case is largely rooted in a video made by Mr Navalny in 2007, to launch his own movement after he was expelled from his political party for his nationalist activities. It is widely known as the “cockroach video”. In the video, Navalny advocates for the legalisation of the possession of firearms as he appears as a pest control specialist giving tips on how to exterminate cockroaches and flies.

Mr Navalny rails against “giant cockroaches and aggressive flies” while an image of Chechen Muslim men appears on a screen beside him. Amnesty’s analysis of the video, which the Byline Times has seen, states: 

“Then, the video shows a human figure wearing Muslim traditional dress, including a black robe and keffiyeh, running with a knife towards him, and Navalny shoots him/her.” During the tribunal hearing, Amnesty’s Secretary General, Agnes Callamard conceded that the cockroach video uses the language of genocide, shows a mock execution of a Muslim and is offensive to Muslims. 

In another video from around the same time, Mr Navalny is dressed as a dentist and compares immigrants to rotten teeth. A third video shows Mr Navalny addressing a nationalist and neo-Nazi march, with participants shown making raised arm salutes and aggressively shouting racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic slogans.

Amnesty’s internal analysis goes on: “The videos lend themselves to viewer interpretations that may incite violence and discrimination. We believe advocacy of hatred is present in the videos and that our interpretation remains valid and justified.”

However, in explaining why he did not believe Mr Navalny’s redesignation would cause violence, part of the judge’s reasoning was that “Mr Navalny’s political platform in 2021 was not anti-Muslim.

The videos were made 13-14 years earlier,” Although he conceded that Mr Navalny was of “sufficient prominence to mean that his public statements were capable of influencing others”. 


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“We Would be in a Different Position if it was a Black or Brown Man”

Ms Jung said Amnesty’s approach to the POC designation, and her tribunal, need to be understood in the broader context of an independent review that took place just months before Mr Navalny’s POC status was restored in May 2021.

The Howlett-Brown review found a lack of faith in the grievance process, instances of overt racism, and a lack of awareness or sensitivity to religious practices resulting in problematic comments and behaviour. Amnesty has since reiterated its commitment to being an anti-racist organisation.

Ms Jung said that despite this commitment, when she first raised her concerns about the redesignation, she alleged it reflected the institutional racism of the organisation stating that if Navalny had been a black or brown man with a history of discriminatory hatred and advocacy of violence, POC status would never have been discussed.

Her programme director remarked “We would be in a different position if it was a black or brown man,” later explaining that it had been a busy and stressful day for her, and her comment did not mean that Mr Navalny had been treated differently because he is white. 

Amnesty redesignated Mr Navalny in May 2021 in part because “our approach has been refined to not exclude a person from designation as a POC solely based on their conduct in the past”.

But the Byline Times has seen emails between Amnesty’s London and Kenya office from 2018 about the decision to deny POC status to Uganda’s main opposition leader Bobi Wine – who was also arrested on trumped-up political charges, like Mr Navalny. 

Ms Jung says this decision shows “very clearly the double standards” Amnesty’s treatment of Mr Navalny has been. Mr Wine was denied POC status because of past homophobic comments, despite his more recent comments advocating tolerance and a public apology to Uganda’s LGBT community.

In response, Amnesty said the tribunal judgement “reflected and substantiated Amnesty’s consistent response regarding the process it followed in considering the POC status of Mr Navalny and the significant consideration given to Ms Jung due to the concerns that she raised”.

An Amnesty International spokesperson explained: “As we have clearly stated publicly, some of Alexei Navalny’s previous statements were reprehensible and we do not condone them in the slightest. However, he is not imprisoned for any recognizable crime. 

“He is imprisoned for demanding exercise of the right to equal participation in public life for himself and his supporters, and for demanding a government that is free from corruption. These are acts of conscience and should be recognised as such.  It is on those grounds that Amnesty affirmed Navalny as a PO.”

Commenting on the issues raised as part of the Howlett Brown review, the organisation said it has adopted a Racial Equality, Diversity and Inclusion framework focusing on three key change areas – symbolic, behavioural and practice.

In addition, Amnesty said it has recruited diversity and inclusion experts alongside setting up a team dedicated to racial and gender justice that will help train all staff and implement anti-racism plans. 

A spokesperson added: “Whilst an application for permission to appeal is now in motion, we will not be commenting further until this process is concluded.” 

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