ENLARGE Photo credit: Human Rights Watch Violence caught on camera at the 2013 Gay Pride event in St. Petersburg, Russia
The Russian authorities need to address a deteriorating situation of widespread and concerted abuse against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and activists. The authorities’ failure to act and some officials’ homophobic comments expose LGBT people to further harassment and violence and embolden the attackers, Human Rights Watch research found.
As the host to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, which begin on February 7, 2014, in Sochi, Russia should act in accordance with the principle of nondiscrimination, a core provision of the Olympic Charter. As a member of the Council of Europe, and party to multiple human rights treaties, it should meet its obligations to provide equal respect and protection for LGBT people.
“The Russian authorities have the power to protect the rights of LGBT people, but instead they are ignoring their responsibility to do so,” said Tanya Cooper, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “By turning a blind eye to hateful homophobic rhetoric and violence, Russian authorities are sending a dangerous message as the world is about to arrive on its doorstep for the Olympics that there is nothing wrong with attacks on gay people.”
LGBT people face stigma, harassment, and violence in their everyday lives in Russia, and LGBT victims of violence and groups told Human Rights Watch that these problems intensified in 2013. Victims in cities including Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Novosibirsk told Human Rights Watch they were attacked in public places, abducted, beaten, harassed, threatened, and psychologically abused. They told Human Rights Watch that they were afraid to go to the police to report violence, fearing further harassment and believing the police would not bother to pursue their attackers. When victims did lodge complaints with the police, few investigations followed.
The absence of relevant data makes it impossible to quantify the extent to which such violence and harassment increased during 2013, but all of the victims and LGBT groups who spoke to Human Rights Watch said they experienced an escalation in homophobic attacks starting in late 2012.
The Russian LGBT Network, an umbrella LGBT group based in St. Petersburg, conducted an anonymous survey on discrimination against LGBT populations in Russia in 2013. More than 50 percent of the 2,007 respondents had experienced psychological abuse, and 15 percent had experienced physical violence. Only 6 percent of victims contacted police.
At least three murders allegedly motivated by homophobia were reported in May, a month before the adoption and signing of the federal anti-gay “propaganda” law.
The adoption of the federal law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors,” one measure among several federal anti-LGBT laws proposed or adopted in 2013, coincided with the spread of homophobic violence. Violating the law is an administrative offense punishable by a range of fines. Media and organizations face particularly hefty fines. On January 30 a court found a newspaper editor in Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East, in violation of the federal “propaganda” law and fined him 50,000 rubles (US$1,450). The editor was charged in connection with publishing an interview in which a gay school teacher, forced to resign over his sexual orientation, was quoted as saying, “My very existence proves that homosexuality is normal.” The editor will appeal the decision.
Foreigners who violate the law are subject to fines, up to 15 days in detention and deportation.
The law also bans representing “traditional” and “nontraditional” relationships as equally acceptable. That makes it illegal to say anything positive about being gay publicly or to tell a child that there is nothing wrong with being gay or being raised by gay parents.
Simultaneously, a vicious homophobic campaign began in the media, particularly state- sponsored and state-controlled media outlets. Government officials, journalists, and celebrities have publicly called LGBT people “perverts,” “sodomites,” and “abnormal,” and have conflated homosexuality with pedophilia. The deputy director of a government television and radio holding and also one of the leading talk show hosts proposed to “burn or bury” the hearts of gay organ donors rather than use them for transplants because they are “unfit to continue anyone’s life.”
“The discriminatory impact of the anti-LGBT law and hateful language on state television have created a climate of intolerance against the Russian LGBT community,” Cooper said. “Russian leaders should denounce, not feed, homophobic hysteria, or the Kremlin’s silence will be taken as condoning the violence.”
Starting in late 2012, numerous vigilante groups consisting of radical nationalists began attacking and harassing gay people in dozens of Russian cities. Mostly claiming to be fighting pedophilia, these groups lure men and boys to meet, accuse them of being gay, humiliate and beat them, and post videos of the proceedings on social networks, intentionally exposing their victims to further abuse. The groups have posted hundreds of videos online.
On January 17, 2014, during a meeting in Krasnaya Polyana, one of the Olympic locations, president Putin said that gay people were welcome in Sochi and would be “comfortable” there, but asked them “to leave children in peace.”
“Russian officials embolden homophobes and their violent attacks by persistently equating homosexuality with pedophilia,” Cooper said. “Such a chilling and wrongheaded message about LGBT people from Russia’s head of state is irresponsible and extremely dangerous.”
Public events in support of LGBT rights have long been met with official intolerance and violent counterdemonstrations. LGBT activists have increasingly become targets of vicious attacks during such events. Human Rights Watch documented violent attacks on LGBT activists during 2012 and 2013 in several Russian cities, including Voronezh, St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Novosibirsk.
Threats and intimidation against Russian LGBT groups also spread in 2013. Several LGBT organizations and their staff experienced violence, threats, and interference with their work. One egregious attack occurred in November at LaSky, an HIV prevention center serving the LGBT community and men who have sex with men in St. Petersburg. Two people entered the LaSky office during a social event and attacked visitors, shooting one in the eye with a pneumatic gun and beating another with a baseball bat.
“Russian officials have long denied that discrimination against LGBT people exists, including to the International Olympic Committee, yet the hostility and violence clearly have been intensifying,” Cooper said. “As Russia hosts the Olympics in this atmosphere of homophobic hatred, the government needs to take urgent measures to support the rights of LGBT people and protect them.”
Harassment and physical attacks against LGBT people
People in Russia identified as or perceived to belong to the LGBT community are targeted for violence. Assailants harass victims in public places, including in the subway, on the street, or at cafes, accusing them of being gay or dressing like “faggots,” and threatening them with violence.
Ivan Fedoseyev (Johnny), a 21-year-old gay man from St. Petersburg, told Human Rights Watch that during 2013 he was harassed at least four times because of his sexual orientation. Several times, men he did not know approached him on the street, asked him whether he had sex with men, and tried to assault him.
In August Fedoseyev was on his way to a fashion show, stylishly dressed. A man approached him in the metro and asked whether Fedoseyev was not afraid to walk “dressed like this.” The man asked Fedoseyev, “Do you know that we have a law that bans gays?” He then began to call Fedoseyev a “faggot” and slapped him in the face. Fedoseyev left the train at the next stop. He did not report the incident to the police because he thought nothing would come out of it.
“The law gave a green light to homophobes to attack us,” Fedoseyev said.
A transgender woman, Risa R. (not her real name), was abducted and brutally assaulted in St. Petersburg in the summer of 2013. Four attackers forced her into their car and drove to the outskirts of the city, where they stripped her, beat her, and pulled out two of her toenails with pliers.
They kept calling me a faggot and telling me how they hate gays. I told them that I wasn’t gay, that I was a transgender woman, but they did not want to listen. One of them said, “You’re nothing but a faggot. We will get your brain straight right now.” They threatened to rape me several times. Then they took pliers from the car and ripped out two of my toenails. Afterward, they said, “Now you will be better off. Now you will be pretty.”
The attackers drove away with Risa’s clothes, leaving her naked and bleeding. She had to walk four and a half hours to reach home.
“The only thing that mattered to me at that point was that I was home, that I was alive,” she said. “I told myself I will not look at my feet, I had experienced enough pain that night.”
Risa did not go to the hospital because she was afraid that she would be asked how she had received her injuries. She also did not report the attack to the police because she had “no illusions that the police would investigate.”
In the following months, Risa said, she was verbally and physically attacked several more times on the street and on public transport.
Violence and harassment against LGBT people by organized vigilante groups
Since late 2012, members of a group calling itself “Occupy Pedophilia” have harassed and attacked gay people in many Russian towns under the pretext of fighting pedophilia and protecting children. “Occupy Pedophilia” is a loosely organized group of vigilantes that calls itself a “social movement.”
Maksim Martsinkevich, also known as Tesak (“cleaver” or “hatchet” in Russian), founded the group. He was a part of a neo-Nazi group and is known for hate speech and violence. He was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison in 2009 for inciting ethnic strife and was released in late 2010.
In December a Moscow court issued an arrest warrant for Martsinkevich, who was in Cuba at that time. He faces extremism charges, reportedly unrelated to his group’s violence against LGBT people. In January Cuban authorities reportedly detained and expelled Martsinkevich to Russia. He was arrested by Russian authorities in a Moscow airport on January 27.
“Occupy Pedophilia” is an explicitly homophobic movement that entraps men seeking a same-sex encounter and then berates them with homophobic slurs and physically assaults them while recording the proceedings on video. The group posts the videos on various social networking websites to further humiliate the victims.
The group has carried out attacks in cities including St. Petersburg, Krasnodar, Kaliningrad, Novosibirsk, Ufa, Ryazan, Rostov, Tula, Omsk, Kazan, Magnitogorsk, and Irkutsk. The group’s webpage hosts hundreds of videos from more than 30 Russian cities.
Other nationalistic groups not directly associated with “Occupy Pedophilia” use similar methods to attack LGBT people.
Human Rights Watch met with several victims of these vigilante groups. Zhenya (last name and city withheld for security reasons), 28, was ambushed, beaten, and robbed by a vigilante group in July. When he arrived for an arranged “date,” several men who appeared to be in their late 20s surrounded him. They accused him of being a pedophile and hit him several times, breaking his jaw in two places. The attackers forced him to give them 50,000 rubles (approximately US$1,450).
Zhenya reported the attack to the police several days later, but they have not carried out a meaningful investigation or identified suspects. It took Zhenya four months to recover from his injuries.
Attacks and intimidation against LGBT activists
Russian LGBT activists told Human Rights Watch that in 2013, anti-gay activists responded to almost all public events in support of human rights and equality for LGBT people with violence and intimidation. In the majority of cases, police did not take adequate measures to prevent and stop the harassment and attacks. In some cases, police used excessive force against LGBT activists and arbitrarily detained them.
On January 20, 2013, a small group of LGBT activists gathered in Voronezh to protest the draft law banning “homosexual propaganda.” Local authorities had approved the demonstration. When a dozen LGBT activists arrived at the site, they saw a large crowd of counter-protesters and very few policemen.
Andrey Nasonov, an LGBT activist who was attacked during the demonstration, told Human Rights Watch,
When I came to the central square, I saw maximum 10 policemen, and no OMON [riot police]. I saw a huge crowd of anti-gay protestors, around 500 people, which ran toward me as soon as I unfurled my poster, which said, “Stop hatred.” Two men pushed me, I fell, and they started kicking me in the head. When they stopped, I got up, walked a few steps and passed out.
Nasonov lodged a complaint with the local police, but no one was found responsible for the attack. Nasonov told Human Rights Watch he felt unsafe in public places and suffered depression.
On June 29, a group of LGBT activists gathered at Mars Field in St. Petersburg to express their support for LGBT rights and protest discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Counter-protesters from informal nationalist groups verbally and physically attacked the activists, several of whom had to be hospitalized.
Witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed said that law enforcement officials at the event did not take appropriate measures to protect the activists and indiscriminately and arbitrarily detained more than 60 LGBT rights activists. The activists faced administrative charges, which were later dropped.
Human Rights Watch documented other cases of violence and harassment of LGBT activists in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Voronezh, Samara, and Kazan.
Threats and intimidation of Russian LGBT groups
In 2013 several Russian LGBT organizations were threatened with violence and their activities were disrupted.
Side by Side, an LGBT International Film Festival based in St. Petersburg, experienced unprecedented harassment by anti-gay activists. In November several film screenings were disrupted, delayed, or rescheduled due to anonymous bomb threats. One person was arrested for making a bomb threat, but there have been no reported arrests in conjunction with other incidents.
The Russian LGBT Network staff told Human Rights Watch that they had received threats from anti-gay activists in St. Petersburg in November. A homophobic slur was written across the office door of Coming Out, another St. Petersburg LGBT group.
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This was first published by Human Rights Watch and is republished under the Creative Commons License.