“Could you please give me your phone? We don’t allow cell phones in our office.”
Stupefied, I handed over my phone. This wasn’t some confidential high-level ministerial meeting – I was visiting a grass roots human rights organization in St. Petersburg.
“We need to take this precaution,” my host explained. “The government could be listening in through your device.”
In Russia, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are going through a hard time. President Vladimir Putin recently signed a new law making it possible to ban the activities of international and foreign organizations the government deems “undesirable” because they supposedly undermine “state security,” “national defense,” or the “constitutional order.” Russian citizens collaborating with these groups can be severely sanctioned.
This measure comes on top of another draconian law that labels Russian NGOs as “foreign agents” if they receive foreign funding and are engaged in broadly defined “political activities.” This label demonizes NGOs in the public eye and severely hinders their important work. Groups working on rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are hampered by another law that forbids the dissemination of any positive public information about homosexuality that might be seen by children.
Last week I visited several Russian LGBT NGOs and was amazed by their resilience. Since the anti-LGBT “propaganda” law came into effect, a number of cases have been brought to court against people who spoke out positively about homosexuality. But the really devastating impact of the law has been its indirect effect. An escalation in violence and discrimination has taken place against people who are (or perceived to be) LGBT as described in the report “License to Harm.” People have been beaten up and police turned a blind eye when the attacks were reported. Teachers have been fired because of their sexual orientation. In public politicians say horrible things about LGBT people. Many LGBT people have left Russia seeking a future elsewhere.
On May 30, activists in Moscow who tried to unfurl a rainbow flag at an LGBT rally that had not received prior permission from the authorities were beaten and several of them detained. Counter-demonstrators reacted aggressively toward them, throwing eggs and punching them. Several counter-protesters were also detained and later released reportedly without charges, while three of the detained LGBT activists remained at the police station until June 1. The three were sentenced to 10 days in detention for allegedly refusing to obey a police officer’s order.
Amidst this intolerance, activists should look to St. Petersburg for inspiration. The activists I met there are also determined to claim their rights. They seek to cooperate with government officials like the federal and regional human rights commissioners. One sign of progress came May 17, during the public demonstration on the International Day against Homo- and Transphobia (IDAHOT). Police took measures to protect the LGBT activists and treated them fairly and with dignity while the St. Petersburg ombudsman monitored if the law enforcement authorities were doing their job. In a country where the government is suppressing Russia’s vibrant civil society, the peaceful IDAHOT demonstration in St. Petersburg provides a necessary antidote.