Russia: Crackdown on LGBT+ activists must end

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned over growing repression against civil society in Russia. The recent attempt to shut down Sphere foundation, part of Russia’s leading LGBT+ rights group, came in the midst of a broader ongoing trend of dismantling LGBT+ rights in the country. We extend our support to Sphere and the entire LGBT+ community in Russia. We urge the authorities to cease politically-motivated persecution of marginalised groups and civil society as well as to repeal abusive ‘homosexual propaganda’ and foreign agent laws.

On 9 February, Russia’s Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit seeking to liquidate Sphere Foundation, a legal and financial entity of the Russian LGBT Network, arguing that the group spreads ‘LGBT views’ and engages in activities that contradict ‘fundamental family values enriched in the constitution’. The Ministry concluded that the very existence of the LGBT+ community ‘goes against state policy focused on preservation, growth and evolution of human capital’.

The St Petersburg Kuibishevsky court sidelined the lawsuit and requested the Ministry of Justice clarify its claims. Though the lawsuit is postponed, the escalation of the multi-pronged, state-backed attacks against rights groups in Russia poses a legitimate threat that more attempts to further suppress the LGBT+ community will take place – especially since the Ministry has already appealed the court’s decision. In a social media post, the chairperson of Russian LGBT Network and founder of Sphere Foundation, Igor Kochetkov, referred to the claims in the lawsuit as ‘political and ideological’.

Russian LGBT Network works to promote and protect the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people and brings together LGBT+-friendly initiatives from across the country. In 2011, Igor Kochetkov founded Sphere Foundation, which leads the network’s programmatic and advocacy work. Both Russian LGBT Network and Sphere Foundation, as well as Kochekov himself, are designated as foreign agents in Russia.

In recent years, both entities have been leading actions against anti-LGBT policies and have helped thousands of survivors of sexual orientation or gender identity-based discrimination and violence in Russia, including providing shelters. Russian LGBT Network also played a key role in exposing the brutality of an anti-gay purge in Chechnya in 2017 that led to abductions, assault and even torture of over 100 men.

As Sphere’s activists note, threats, provocations and smear campaigns quickly became a grim routine of their work. In 2019, Kochetkov received multiple death threats after he filed a complaint with Russia’s chief investigative agency regarding an alleged new wave of homophobic round-ups in Chechenya.

Foreign agent and ‘gay propaganda’ laws are notoriously being used to hinder the activity of LGBT+ groups and enact homophobic legislation that enables violence to spread. Russian authorities supported by pro-state media instrumentally use the protection of ‘traditional family values’ to reinforce harmful stereotypes and incite hostility against LGBT+ people, openly calling their movement ‘destructive to public morality’.

The Kremlin’s policy to tighten its grip on civil society has already compelled a shutdown of a myriad of research centres, journalistic initiatives and rights groups, including Memorial – Russia’s prominent and oldest human rights organisation that monitors politically- and religiously-motivated persecution and documents political repression in the USSR.

Legal harassment and smear campaigns against LGBT+ rights groups are part of the wider civil society crackdown unleashed by Russian authorities to suppress independent voices. Under Russia’s international human rights obligations, marginalised groups should be protected, not labelled as an enemy. ARTICLE 19 calls on Russian authorities to refrain from targeting LGBT+ activists for doing their vital work and to repeal abusive laws that contravene fundamental human rights.