Leading Regional LGBT Group Slapped With a "Foreign Agent" Fine in Russia

02/13/2015 03:52 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

Another day, another court battle lost for the Russian LGBT community, this time set to the tune of Secret Agent Man.

On February 12th, the regional nonprofit organization Rakurs was slapped with a 300,000 ruble fine for continuing to work without registering as a "foreign agent." The gay rights group from the northern port city of Archangelsk was declared a "foreign agent" two months ago though its members flatly refused to wear the designation on their sleeves.

While the fine comes out to less than 5 thousand U.S. dollars, the sum is a hefty price tag for the organization that does good work in a very difficult environment. Last year, Rakurs was profiled in a NYT op-ed, "Life Under Russia's 'Gay Propaganda' Ban." Archangelsk is a grim little town, yet Rakurs serves important needs of a tiny minority, offering counseling services, organizing training sessions, raising awareness about HIV/AIDS, and finding ways to establish dialogue between parents whose children have come out as gay.

In 2010, the government almost succeeded in denying Rakurs official registration, branding the organization "extremist"--a popular tactic used against dissenting voices. But Rakurs fought the absurd designation, in the end becoming one of the handful Russian NGOs with the words "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender" spelled out in its by-laws. In rainbow-colored letters made of gold.

In November 2014, the group's longtime leader Tatyana Vinnichenko became chairwoman of the board of the Russian LGBT Network, the country's largest coalition of gay rights organizations well-known across the world for standing up to the infamous "anti-propaganda" laws and campaigning around the Sochi Olympics last year. "Extremist" no more, the group was compelled to register as a "foreign agent" by a court order from December 15, 2014. The refusal to do so has now cost them 300,000 rubles.

Tatyana Vinnichenko explained that registering as a "foreign agent" would fully discredit her organization's work in support of the LGBT communities in Russia as the term carries a negative connotation to the society at large. The government's message is simple: fighting for LGBT rights is harmful, and those engaged in this struggle are dangerous.

The fine will be challenged further. Rakurs is represented by Sergey Petryakov, a lawyer from the inter-regional human rights group Agora hailed for its relentless pro bono work in support of activists across Russia. The February 12th hearing lasted a mere 30 minutes, during which the Ministry of Justice reps presented an array of inconsequential and absurd "evidence," like screenshots of Tatyana Vinnichenko's photographs accompanying media stories from local news portals. They're out there affecting the public, says the government. It's political. It's on.

The infamous "foreign agent" law was adopted by the Russian parliament in 2012, requiring nonprofit groups that receive foreign funding and are engaged in "political activity" to enlist themselves with the Ministry of Justice as "foreign agents." Human Rights Watch says this definition is so broad and vague that it applies to virtually all aspects of human rights or advocacy work in Russia. The Ministry's registry stood at 38 entries as of last week, though actual fines remain somewhat of an anomaly affecting only the most "malicious" "foreign agents"--like Rakurs.