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(Moscow) – A Russian court on January 18, 2016, found a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights activist guilty of violating the country’s notorious “gay propaganda” law and issued a stiff fine. Russian prosecutors should support an appeal, which the activist, Sergei Alekseenko, plans to file in the coming days.

Alekseenko was the director of Maximum, a Murmansk LGBT rights group that provided legal and psychosocial support. The Leninsky District Court in Murmansk, in northwestern Russia, found certain items posted on the Maximum’s website violated the law banning the dissemination of positive information about LGBT relationships to children and, as the director, Alekseenko was found responsible and fined 100,000 rubles (about US$1,300) for the alleged “propaganda.”

Sergei Alekseenko. © 2012 Private

“Russian authorities use the ‘gay propaganda’ law to harass and intimidate LGBT activists into silence,” said Tanya Cooper, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Sergei Alekseenko will be appealing the district court’s verdict and the prosecutors should not oppose Alekseenko’s appeal.”

The verdict, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, stated that Alekseenko was responsible for information about “non-traditional sexual relations” posted on the group’s web page on the Russian social network VK (formerly VKontakte) and fully aware that children might have access to it. The group ceased to operate in October 2015, after the authorities forcibly registered it as a “foreign agent.”

Alekseenko told Human Rights Watch that on December 12, local police summoned him to sign a statement alleging that he had committed an administrative violation. The statement, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, said that on January 20, 2015, the police had received a petition from unidentified individuals about “illegal activities” on Maximum’s VK account. It also said that a psycho-linguistic evaluation, which investigators ordered in May, had found that several posts on the account contained “linguistic and psychological elements of propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.”

Alekseenko said that one of the posts deemed “propaganda” was reposted from another user’s account, which stated: “Children! To be gay means to be a person who is brave, strong, confident, persistent, who has a sense of dignity and self-respect.” It was a slightly paraphrased statement from a complaint that Russia’s media oversight agency, Roskomnadzor, filed against Deti 404 (Children 404), an online group providing psychosocial support and anti-suicide counseling to LGBT children. In August, Deti 404 was blocked on VK.

Another post was a poem by the 19th century Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov, describing a sexual scene between two young men.

Alekseenko is the fifth LGBT activist Russian courts have held liable for “gay propaganda” since the law entered into force in June 2013.

Alekseenko said that police told him they had received 28 complaints from various Russian regions. Although police told him that they were unable to identify and question any of the petitioners, the investigation went ahead. Alekseenko also said that he first heard about the case in December 2015, when the police summoned him to sign the statement, though they told him then that the case had been opened in January.

As a party to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Russia is obliged to guarantee the right to freedom of expression and to ensure the enjoyment of this right without discrimination. Any restrictions on the right to freedom of expression must be provided for precisely in law, proportionate, necessary, and non-discriminatory. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has found that legislation that bans “propaganda” about LGBT relationships violates the right to freedom of expression and non-discrimination. Under freedom of expression standards, Russia is required to guarantee freedom to express ideas or thoughts that might offend, shock, or disturb some section of the population.

“Russian authorities should immediately stop penalizing LGBT people for discussing their identities,” Cooper said. “Russia’s federal law banning “gay propaganda” should be immediately repealed.”

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