A woman holds a banner in front of the Colosseum during the annual gay pride parade in Rome on June 15, 2013.

(Milan) – Perugia’s public prosecutor should immediately drop charges against six gay rights activists accused of disturbing the peace because they kissed during a demonstration in March 2014, Human Rights Watch said today. The public prosecutor’s office notified the six of the charges on October 7.

“The charges would be laughable if they didn’t reflect exactly the anti-gay sentiment the activists are fighting against,” said Judith Sunderland, senior Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The public prosecutor should withdraw these charges immediately.”

The police conducted an identity check on the three men and three women after they held a spontaneous, uncoordinated protest against an anti-gay-marriage group calling itself the Sentinelle in Piedi, or Standing Sentries, on March 29 in Perugia, capital of the Umbria region, in central Italy. Two of the activists are members of Omphalos while four belong to Bella Queer, both local Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights groups. All six are accused of disturbing the peace, while four are also accused of holding an unlawful demonstration.

The public prosecutor acted on the basis of a subsequent police report that accused two of the men of engaging in “a long and passionate kiss on the mouth … in front of many families with children and adolescents many of whom are minors, leaving passersby disgusted by such a demonstration.” The report, described to Human Rights Watch by one of the accused, also includes a description of the protesters’ clothing (colorful shirts, a feather boa) and states that one of the activists made noise with a small tambourine.

The Sentinelle began silent demonstrations in Italian towns and cities in 2013 to express opposition to same-sex marriage and efforts to extend bias crime protections to those targeted on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The members stand silently in plazas, holding books or praying.

On October 5, the Sentinelle held prayer vigils in numerous cities across Italy. There were scuffles between Sentinelle and counter-protesters in Trento, Torino, Naples, and Bologna. In Venice, the Carabinieri, Italy’s military police force, registered the identities of two men who kissed each other in the plaza, threatening to charge them with holding an unlawful demonstration.

The public prosecutor’s office in Bergamo rightly decided to dismiss charges brought by police against a man who had performed his own silent protest against the Sentinelle in Bergamo on October 5. He stood silently nearby dressed in a fake Nazi uniform taken from the movie “The Blues Brothers,” which featured the “Nazis of Illinois.” A sign at his feet read “The Nazis of Illinois stand with the Sentinelle.” The police had notified the public prosecutor’s office with a report suggesting he was guilty of being an apologist of fascism.

Organized, nonviolent public protest is a hallmark of a democratic society. The fundamental rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly are firmly guaranteed in international and European law. Human rights law sets a high threshold for barring or punishing public demonstrations; unauthorized, annoying, or offensive peaceful protests can be perfectly legitimate. The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, has recommended to all countries that spontaneous assemblies should be permissible in law.

“Gay men and lesbian women kissing in public is not a crime,” Sunderland said. “The activists’ actions are clearly protected by their right to peaceful protest.”

The protests and counter-protests come at a time when the debate in Italy over same-sex marriage and civil unions has heated up. Several cities, including Grosseto, Bologna, and Naples, have begun registering same-sex marriages contracted abroad. On October 7, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano issued a circular to all prefects – representatives of the Interior Ministry in Italy’s provinces – ordering them to require local authorities to withdraw any such measures and, in the case of inaction by the local authorities, to use their powers to annul ex officio such measures. After that date, Milan and Rome started registering same-sex marriages in defiance of the circular.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said his government is preparing draft legislation to create civil unions for same-sex couples, while a bill for civil unions drafted by a member of parliament from Renzi’s Democratic Party has already been submitted to the Senate Justice Commission for examination. Flavio Romani, president of Arcigay, explained that LGBT groups in Italy aspire to full marriage equality, but that the civil unions as envisioned in the existing draft legislation would provide virtually the same rights and duties as marriage under Italian law.

“We won’t uncork the champagne,” he told Human Rights Watch. “But a big step forward is better than nothing. But it has to be a big step forward.”

Recognizing same-sex marriage is a measure of respect for the fundamental rights of equality and non-discrimination, Human Rights Watch said. Same-sex marriage is legal in seventeen countries worldwide, including nine in the European Union, as well as Norway and Iceland, which are not EU members, and in parts of Mexico and the United States. Thirteen EU countries recognize some form of civil unions for same-sex couples, either nationally or in some regions of the country. This includes some countries, like Spain, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, which also recognize same-sex marriage.