Today, the day of the opening ceremony of Russia’s Sochi Olympics, prominent human rights activist Anastasia Smirnova was arrested in St. Petersburg. Her offense? She was on her way to take photos with a banner that promoted principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, which states that “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender, or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.”
What could possibly explain or justify hauling away a few people standing with a sign which makes the accurate (and obvious)point that discrimination is incompatible with the Olympic Charter? One might ask the same question about the arrest in Moscow a few hours later of a group of 10 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) activists, including two foreigners, who tried to hold the rainbow flag and sing the Russian national anthem near Red Square. Such is the sad state of things in Russia today.
Anastasia Smirnova is strategic and careful. Like all human rights activists working in Russia, she has to be. She is not just a human rights defender, but as the climate for LGBT rights deteriorated in Russia, Anastasia took on the role of spokesperson for a coalition of Russian rights organizations that document abuses against LGBT people in Russia.
In June 2013, a pernicious anti-gay “propaganda” law came into effect when it unanimously passed the Russian Duma and was signed into law by President Vladimir Putin. That discriminatory law has helped fuel a backlash against Russia’s LGBT community and emboldened groups entrapping and brutally attacking gay citizens in Russia.
It has only been legal to be gay since 1993 in Russia. But Anastasia is from a generation of brave LGBT activists who decided to both claim their rights and create space for others who needed a community of support.
Last November, Anastasia was one of the LGBT leaders from Russia who sat down with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach in Paris. She said afterwards: “It was a valuable conversation, and we delivered first-hand evidence that clear and strong action is needed from the IOC to ensure respect of the Olympic principles at the Sochi games.”
At the IOC meeting, Anastasia put a number of scenarios to Thomas Bach, including what the IOC would do when activists are arrested.
Anastasia and others have been released by the police and will be in court tomorrow, but as I write this the Moscow activists are still in custody. The bottom line is that the IOC’s longstanding failure to protect rights has led Russia to believe it can arrest critics with no consequence.
Russia’s ugly and wholly predictable crackdown is a profound challenge to the IOC and the values of the Olympic movement. The IOC should act now and decisively to end Russia’s dangerous games.