(Moscow) – Russian authorities have failed in their obligation to prevent and prosecute homophobic violence. Growing numbers of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have been attacked and harassed across Russia in the lead-up and aftermath of the adoption of the federal anti-LGBT “propaganda” law in June 2013. The law effectively legalized discrimination against LGBT people and cast them as second-class citizens.
The 85-page report, “License to Harm: Violence and Harassment against LGBT People and Activists in Russia,” is based on dozens of detailed interviews with LGBT people and activists in 16 cities across Russia who experienced attacks or aggressive harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBT people described being beaten, abducted, humiliated, and called “pedophiles” or “perverts,” in some cases by homophobic vigilante groups and in others by strangers on the subway, on the street, at nightclubs, at cafes, and in one case, at a job interview.
“Violence experienced by LGBT people in Russia is unmistakably motivated by homophobia, but the authorities deliberately ignore that these are hate crimes and fail to protect victims,” said Tanya Cooper, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Russian authorities should effectively prosecute homophobic violence, and the authorities should stop engaging in and tolerating anti-LGBT discrimination.”
Human Rights Watch documented the stigma, harassment, and violence LGBT people in Russia face in their everyday lives. Most of those interviewed said that these problems intensified since 2013. In some cases, they were attacked by the anti-LGBT vigilante groups that appeared in dozens of Russian cities and towns in late 2012. These groups of radical nationalists lure gay men and teenage boys on the pretext of a fake date, hold them against their will, and humiliate and expose them by videotaping the encounter. Hundreds of such videos depicting abuse have been posted online.
“I felt blood in my mouth, but only later learned that the attackers had broken my jaw in two places,” said one victim of a vigilante group.
In other cases, LGBT people described being physically attacked by strangers during their everyday activities. Victims told Human Rights Watch that assailants followed them and in many cases hit them, while accusing them of being gay, calling them “faggots,” and hurling homophobic slurs at them in public places.
LGBT activists also face physical violence and harassment at public events supporting LGBT equality. The vast majority of LGBT activists interviewed had been attacked at least once during public pro-LGBT events since 2012, describing attacks in several cities. They said that although anti-LGBT counter-protesters routinely harass and attack them, the police consistently fail to take adequate measures to prevent the attacks and protect them from violence.
Out of 78 victims of homophobic and transphobic violence and harassment interviewed for the report, 22 did not report attacks against them to the police because they feared direct harassment from police and did not believe the police would take the attacks seriously. Many victims felt reporting the attacks to the police was a waste of time. Indeed, when victims did lodge complaints with the police, few investigations followed.
“Russian law enforcement agencies have the tools to prosecute homophobic violence, but they lack the will to do so,” Cooper said. “The failure to stop and punish homophobic violence and aggression puts LGBT people and their supporters at further risk of attack.”
Aside from several isolated investigations, the authorities have done little to hold attackers accountable.
Human Rights Watch found that although Russia has hate crime laws, law enforcement agencies do not treat even the most egregious homophobic attack as a hate crime. Not a single case documented in the report was investigated as a hate crime. In cases documented in the report, when police did open criminal investigations, they were dismissive and reluctant to investigate effectively, often blaming victims for the attacks. Only 3 of the 44 cases in which victims filed a police report led to a prosecution. At least two of the attackers in these cases were convicted but their sentences did not correspond to the gravity of harm to the victims.
Instead of publicly denouncing anti-LGBT violence and rhetoric, Russia’s leadership has either remained silent or – in some cases – engaged in explicit anti-LGBT hate speech, Human Rights Watch found.
In several cases, LGBT people or supporters of LGBT rights working as educators in schools, universities, or community centers for children became targets of smear campaigns organized to demonize them and portray them as a threat to children solely because of their sexual orientation. Most of them lost their jobs.
The 2013 law bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors” and was one of several anti-LGBT measures proposed or adopted in 2013. Violating the law is an administrative offense punishable by a range of fines.
“The anti-LGBT “propaganda” law doesn’t protect anyone, but it does give homophobes a convenient reason to believe LGBT lives matter less to the government,” Cooper said. “The Russian government should repeal the law and stop discrimination against Russia’s LGBT citizens.”
“I felt blood in my mouth, but only later learned that the attackers had broken my jaw in two places. They took me to a nearby empty yard and asked me, ‘So how are we going to fix this?’ ‘We could break your arms and legs, or...’ I understood that they wanted money.... Before they let me go, they asked me, ‘Do you know what people have always done to gays in Russia? They impaled gays!’”
– Zhenya Zh. (not his real name), a victim of an anti-LGBT vigilante group
“They forced me to stand in the middle of the circle they formed around me. They asked me questions about my sex life and sexual preferences, and then they forced me to yell that I was a pedophile and gay. They called themselves ‘Athletes against Pedophiles’ and told me, ‘We will catch all of you and we will teach you how to live.’ It was around 5 p.m., so there were a lot of people in the shopping mall, shopping and dining. But no one stopped them, no one interfered.”
– Slava S. (not his real name), a victim of anti-LGBT vigilante group
“A man approached me in the metro and asked me whether I was afraid to walk ‘dressed like this.’ He asked me, ‘Do you know we have a law that bans gays?’ He then started to yell offensive insults about me, calling me a ‘faggot,’ asked people around to take a good look at me, and followed me into a train. Inside the metro car he called me a ‘faggot’ and slapped me in the face.”
– Ivan (Johnny) Fedoseyev, a gay man attacked by a stranger in the St. Petersburg subway