July 10, 2013 Update
On July 10, 2013 the Dzerzhinsky District Court of Saint Petersburg dropped administrative charges against several of the demonstrators detained on June 29. Charges against Yuri Gavrikov, the head of the LGBT organization “Equality," were dropped on July 4. Hearings in the remaining 20 administrative cases will take place in other Saint Petersburg courts in the coming days.
July 8, 2013
Prosecutor of Saint Petersburg
Sergei Ivanovich Litvinenko
190000 Saint Petersburg
Ulitsa Pochtamtskaya, Dom 2/9
Dear Sergei Ivanovich,
We are writing to you to express our grave concern about violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators on June 29, 2013 in Saint Petersburg as well as the bringing of charges against demonstrators apparently solely for their exercise of the right to peaceful assembly. Dozens of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) activists were verbally and physically attacked by counter-protestors from several informal nationalist groups during a peaceful public gathering in support for equality of LGBT people. Several peaceful demonstrators were hospitalized with injuries. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that law enforcement officials present at the event failed to take appropriate measures to protect the activists from violence. In addition, over 60 activists were indiscriminately and arbitrarily detained by police.
We understand that administrative charges were brought against dozens of demonstrators with no evidence that they had used or threatened violence. The mass detention of LGBT activists and the use of administrative sanctions against them purely due to their exercise of their right to peaceful assembly would be excessive and arbitrary and therefore violates the human rights protections enshrined in Russia’s domestic legislation and in its international obligations. We urge the Saint Petersburg prosecutor’s office to drop all charges against the detained activists that are based on their exercising their right to peaceful assembly, promptly and thoroughly investigate all instances of violence on June 29, and bring those responsible for the attacks to justice.
Chronology of events on June 29
As you are certainly aware, on June 29 a group of LGBT activists gathered at Mars Field in central Saint Petersburg to express their support for LGBT rights and protest against discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A group of around 60 protestors gathered at the portion of Mars Field designated specifically for public events and demonstrations. Consistent with Russian law, the organizers informed the city authorities about the event and obtained an official written confirmation from the mayor’s office acknowledging it. To hold an event in this location, the organizers needed only to inform the city authorities; they did not need to obtain official permission.
The public event began around 2:30 pm. A representative from the ombudsman’s office of Saint Petersburg, who monitored the demonstration, stated in a report published on the ombudsman’s website that around 100 police officers were present at the event to provide security. According to the demonstrators interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the number of counter-protestors exceeded 200. Among them were representatives of informal nationalist groups, such as “Slav Power,” “The Russian Run,” and others known for expressing racist and homophobic views online and in public settings. As the ombudsman’s report notes, some of the counter-protestors came with children.
At first, the counter-protestors verbally insulted the LGBT activists, using crude and obscene language. According to the ombudsman’s report and a witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the police did not take any steps to stop the aggressive behavior. Shortly thereafter, the counter-protestors began physically attacking LGBT activists in the presence of police officials, throwing eggs, stones, even smoke bombs, and kicking and punching them. Two activists who witnessed the attacks told Human Rights Watch that the police did not appropriately react to physical violence against the demonstrators and did not intervene until after many peaceful protestors had already been attacked.
An activist from the Saint Petersburg LGBT rights organization “Coming Out," which provided legal support to the detained activists, told Human Rights Watch that as a result of these attacks, at least seven activists had to be hospitalized with various injuries, including a suspected head injury, a broken lip, scrapes, bruises, and the like. Several videos available online and viewed by Human Rights Watch staff show how the counter-protestors punched and kicked the activists and threatened them with further physical violence.
At least one police officer suffered injuries from an altercation with counter-protestors.
Half an hour after the demonstration began, the police demanded that all the demonstrators had to leave. Police officials explained that they had received a complaint from one of the onlookers claiming that the children whose parents had brought them to the event were being exposed to “homosexual propaganda.” Article 7.1 of a Saint Petersburg regional law bans “public acts aimed at propaganda of homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, and transgenderism among minors.” Human Rights Watch has critiqued this law and others like it in Russia and other countries for violating rights to free speech and assembly.
When the activists refused to leave, the police advanced on the demonstrators, forcing them to move towards police buses parked nearby. Two LGBT activists participating in the demonstration told Human Rights Watch that police officers aggressively and forcefully pushed demonstrators and used batons against them. Several LGBT activists received bruises and scrapes as a result. Video evidence viewed by Human Rights Watch also confirmed that police aggressively pushed and used batons against the activists.
Arbitrary Detention of Peaceful Demonstrators
According to the LGBT group Equality, the organizer of the demonstration, around 60 LGBT activists were detained and taken to several different police stations. At least 10 counter-protestors were also detained. The Russian LGBT Network, which provided legal support to the detained activists, estimated that most activists spent 4 to 6 hours in detention before they were allowed to return home. One of the demonstration participants and organizers, Yuri Gavrikov, was held in a police station overnight and released on the morning of June 30.
At least 30 detained LGBT activists now face charges for two administrative offences: “violation of established order of organizing or conducting a gathering, meeting, demonstration, rally, or picket” (article 20.2 of the Code of Administrative Violation) and “refusal to heed orders of law enforcement officials” (article 19.3).
At a court hearing on July 4, the administrative charges against Yuri Gavrikov were dropped by the judge. Court hearings for other LGBT activists are scheduled to take place on July 9.
Human Rights Watch does not have information about charges brought against counter-protestors.
Given that there is no claim that LGBT activists and their supporters were committing crimes of violence, it appears these charges are solely directed at their exercise of their right to peaceful assembly. They are arbitrary, excessive, and in violation of human rights law. We note also that in notifying the city authorities about the demonstration, the event had been organized in accordance with the procedures required under law.
The right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed to all Russian citizens under article 31 of the Russian Constitution. Article 52 of the constitution also protects the “rights of victims of crimes and of abuse of office.” The Russian state is obliged to ensure access to justice for victims and compensation for any damage.
The rights to peaceful assembly, association, and speech are also guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which Russia is a party. Under international law, the Russian Federation has an obligation to guarantee the right to freedom of assembly to all Russian citizens and others within Russia’s borders regardless of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The Russian authorities are also obliged to take measures to prevent and prosecute homophobic violence. In particular, the United Nations Human Rights Committee noted that “the State party should ensure that all allegations of attacks and threats against individuals targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity are thoroughly investigated.”
We do not question and fully recognize the important and necessary work of Russian law enforcement officials to ensure and maintain public order. It should not be done, however, at the expense of the fundamental rights of people to freedom of assembly and free expression. Moreover, police officers must protect peaceful demonstrators from verbal aggression and physical violence as part of their duty to guarantee peaceful demonstrators’ rights to assembly and speech.
We urge you to launch a prompt and effective investigation into all instances of attacks against LGBT activists as well as allegations of the use of physical force by law enforcement officials when dispersing the demonstration in Saint Petersburg on June 29. The use of charges against the detained LGBT activists for their exercise of the right to peaceful assembly is excessive and they should be dropped.
I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience to learn what steps your office has taken to address these concerns.
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch