Policemen detain a gay rights activist during a gay pride parade in Moscow on May 28, 2011.

Update

On February 8, 2012, the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly held its second hearing of the draft law to impose penalties for “public activities to promote sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transsexuality.”  The draft law was passed at second reading, 30 to 6. A similar law was passed in the Russian region of Kostroma in late December. If the St. Petersburg bill is approved at third reading, it will then become law, though it is unclear when the vote will take place. But supporters of human rights should use this window of opportunity to press the legislative assembly to ensure that Russia’s human rights obligations are observed and to urge them to reject this draconian, homophobic bill, which puts the St. Petersburg LGBT community at significant risk. 

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(Moscow, November 28, 2011) – The St. Petersburg legislative assembly should halt consideration of a discriminatory bill that would deny freedom of expression to the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, Human Rights Watch said today.

The assembly is scheduled on November 30, 2011, to hold a second reading on a bill that would impose penalties for“public activities to promote sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transsexuality.” Those promoting the bill claim it is to protect minors from LGBT “propaganda.” Individuals found responsible would face fines up to 5,000 rubles (US$160), and organizations would face fines up to 50,000 rubles (US$1,600). The bill’s language is so vague and broad that it could lead to a ban on displaying a rainbow flag or wearing a T-shirt with a gay-friendly logo or even on LGBT-themed rallies in the city.

“This bill is a blatant attack on freedom of expression and a thinly disguised attempt to silence Russia’s LGBT community,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The effort to have this law adopted in St. Petersburg, known as Russia’s northern capital, is a test case for those who want to entrench discrimination against the LGBT community throughout the country.”

The bill would violate both Russia's constitution and international human rights law on non-discrimination and freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.

The St. Petersburg bill passed by a vote of 37 to 1 on the first of its three readings in mid-November. Similar laws have already been passed in two other Russian regions, in Ryazan in 2006 and in Arkhangelsk in September 2011. Lyudmila Stebenkova, head of the Moscow City Council’s Committee on Health Care and Public Health, said that the council was working on a draft of a similar law.The speaker of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienkohas voiced her support for the bill under consideration in St. Petersburg.

The bill would introduce two amendments to the St. Petersburg Law on Administrative Offenses. In addition to the amendment banning LBGT “propaganda,” the bill would ban propaganda promoting pedophilia.

“The attempt to conflate pedophilia, which is a crime, with homosexuality is a disgrace and should be exposed for the insidious lie it is,” Williamson said. “The bill’s sponsors say they want to protect children, but the bill is really about making the LGBT community invisible.”

The bill has caused outrage throughout the world. Many nongovernmental organizations and activists have spoken out against it and called on the Russian authorities to stop the bill from being adopted. The US State Department and the UK Foreign Office have also expressed their profound concern.

The environment for LGBT people in Russia is very hostile, and LGBT activists are vulnerable to harassment and physical attack. The authorities routinely ban and violently disperse gay demonstrations. In October 2010 the European Court of Human Rights found Russia in violation of freedom of assembly for repeatedly denying activists the right to hold gay pride marches.

The court firmly rejected the Russian government's argument that there was no general consensus on issues relating to the treatment of sexual minorities. The ruling stated that there is “no ambiguity” about “the right of individuals to openly identify themselves as gay, lesbian or any other sexual minority, and to promote their rights and freedoms, in particular by exercising their freedom of peaceful assembly.” Despite this legally binding ruling, police violently dispersed the May 2011 gay pride gathering in central Moscow, and on November 24 Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said in a radio interview that he continued to oppose gay pride parades in the nation’s capital.

Russia is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to guarantee the rights to non-discrimination, freedom of assembly, and expression. Russia also supported a March 2010 recommendation from the Committee of Ministers in the Council of Europe to end discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. The document includes provisions for the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression without discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Leaders of European Union member states should voice concern over homophobic measures in Russia, particularly in advance of December’s EU-Russia summit meeting in Brussels, Human Rights Watch said.

“Russia is in the Council of Europe, it’s a crucial partner for the EU, and it should adhere to European standards on human rights,” Williamson said. “The federal government also needs to send an unambiguous message to its cities and regions that Russia will not stand for this.”