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Russia: Organized Vigilante Groups Target and Attack LGBT People

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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.”

Read testimony about the attacks and vigilante attackers >>