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Russia’s Justice Ministry files lawsuit, seeks to close LGBTQ+ rights group

The network works to promote and protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Russia

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Igor Kochetkov speaking at the European Parliament about persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya. (Photo by Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch)

By Tanya Lokshina | MOSCOW, Russia – This week, Russia’s Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit seeking to “liquidate” Sphere Foundation, the legal entity under which the Russian LGBT Network operates, arguing the group’s activities run contrary to “traditional values.”

The network works to promote and protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Russia. During Chechnya’s horrific anti-gay purge in 2017, the network led efforts to stop abuses and evacuate survivors.

According to the Press Service for St. Petersburg Courts, the ministry’s lawsuit argues that “all the activities of Sphere run contrary to the state policy designed to preserve, expand and develop [the country’s] human capital.” The ministry also accuses Sphere of spreading “LGBT views” and working with people under the age of 18, aspiring, among other things, to “change Russian federal legislation regarding the LGBT movement” – in other words, the discriminatory “gay propaganda” law.

The suit asserts that if the work of a non-profit organization is out of sync with “fundamental family values enshrined in the Russian constitution” it represents “a threat to public order and the rule of law.”

Sphere Foundation was founded in 2011 by Russian LGBT rights activist, Igor Kochetkov. In 2016, authorities designated Sphere Foundation a “foreign agent.” In 2021, Russian LGBT Network and Kochetkov personally were also slapped with the toxic “foreign agent” designation. At around that time, state-sponsored media organized a vicious smear campaign against the network and Kochetkov.

“During [its] 11 years, Sphere … was never found in breach of any regulations. The government’s claims against us are ideological, rather than law-based,” Kochetkov said in a social media post.

The Justice Ministry’s recent lawsuit against Memorial, Russia’s human rights leader, was laced with  allegations of absurd bureaucratic violations of the “foreign agents” law. However the prosecutors openly stated their political motivations during the final court hearing.

With Sphere, the authorities have explicitly disclosed their political and anti-rights motivation from the starting block. After years of hindering the work of LGBT rights activists with the use of the “foreign agent” and “gay propaganda” laws, the authorities now demand the organization be shut down in the name of “traditional values.” The courts should not be compliant with this act of political, homophobic censorship that blatantly violate Russia’s human rights obligations.

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Tanya Lokshina is the Associate Director, Europe and Central Asia Division for Human Rights Watch

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The preceding piece was previously published by Human Rights Watch and is republished by permission.

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Brittney Griner trial scheduled to begin July 1

WNBA star detained in Moscow airport in February

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(Screenshot from Russian television)

MOSCOW — A Russian court on Monday said detained WNBA star Brittney Griner’s trial will begin on July 1.

The Associated Press reported the Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner, will remain in custody through the duration of her trial. 

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Brittney Griner after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department has determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 14 spoke with Cherelle Griner. 

Officials with the State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs on June 13 met with Brittney Griner’s teammates to discuss her detention and efforts to secure her release.

Brittney Griner on June 18 was unable to speak with her wife on their fourth anniversary because the phone at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow that she called went unanswered. A State Department spokesperson later admitted a “logistical error” prevented Brittney Griner from speaking with Cherelle Griner.

Brittney Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if she is convicted.

The Human Rights Campaign and the Council for Global Equality are among the dozens of advocacy groups who signed a letter to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris last week that urged them to do more to secure Brittney Griner’s release. 

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Criminal case against Russian femactivist Yulia Tsvetkova drags on

The criminal proceedings against Tsvetkova, who faces up to six years in prison, are closed to the press and public

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Undated picture of Yulia Tsvetkova & her self-drawing taken from VKontakte posts (Courtesy of Amnesty International)

KOMSOMOLSK-ON-AMUR, Khabarovsk Krai, Russia – Facing a potential sentence of six years in a Russian penal facility and just recently categorised as a  “foreign media agent” by the Russian government, 29-year-old feminist and artist Yulia Tsvetkova remains undaunted.

Authorities in this medium-sized city in the Russian Far East have been actively investigating and targeting Tsvetkova since 2017 after she posted nude drawings in a social media group of herself and others along with artwork supporting Russian LGBTQ+ people on VKontakte (VK.com) the giant Russian social networking platform.

She is charged with “production and dissemination of pornographic materials” (Article 242 (3b) of the Russian Criminal Code) for her body-positive drawings of vaginas on VK.com.

In addition Russian authorities have also been fined Tsvetkova 50,000 rubles for being the administrator of an LGBTQ+ Facebook page, and 75,000 rubles for a drawing depicting two same-sex couples with children. This month, the Russian Ministry of Justice added her to the register of foreign media agents, in part for her work supporting LGBTQ people.

This translates as: “Family is where the love is- support LGBTQ families!”

In an interview with journalist Nina Nazarova from the BBC Russian Service, so far, Tsvetkova said she has not received any official notification from the Russian Ministry of Justice regarding her inclusion in the register of foreign media agents.

“I don’t plan to take active steps myself to get registered, to make an insane and useless legal entity,” Tsvetkova told the BBC. “A lot depends on whether I end up in prison in the next month.

Her mother who she lives with, Anna Khodyreva, who is her unrelenting advocate, posted on her Facebook page about the designation.

“I am the mother of a foreign agent, and am very proud of this,” she wrote, using the Russian shorthand inoagent, which has entered the vernacular.

Tsvetkova was first investigated in 2017, but according to the BBC everything has changed since November 2019, when Tsvetkova became a defendant in five trials and, in fact, was locked up in Komsomolsk-on-Amur.

She was arbitrarily first detained on 20 November 2019 and remained under house arrest until 16 March 2020. There were delays in the trial proceedings that were marked by a continuing investigation by the Federal Security Service at the behest of Boris Viktorovich Kononenko,
the Chief Prosecutor of Komsomolsk-on-Amur.

A video released on YouTube on 15 Jun 2020 by author, activist and artist-writer Nicole Garneau details an overview of the case against Tsvetkova:

In August 2020, the Kulturfabrik Moabit in Berlin hosted an exhibition in solidarity with Yulia Tsvetkova. The exhibition was visited by about 300 people.

Courtesy of Kulturfabrik Moabit in Berlin, Germany

Independent political-journalist Matt Baume, writing for Them magazine reported last April this isn’t the first time that Tsvetkova has faced scrutiny under Russia’s discriminatory laws, however. In 2019, she directed a play criticizing gender stereotypes entitled Blue and Pink at Color of Saffron festival, an art fair for children in the eastern Russian city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, and authorities reportedly forced the event to close in its entirety over concerns that organizers were “attempting to illegally hold an LGBT event,” according to The Art Newspaper.

Although the play was reportedly held for a small crowd in defiance of Russian authorities, Tsvetkova has been fined under the “propaganda” ban twice. She was forced $780 in 2019 for running an online support group for LGBTQ+ people and $658 last summer for a drawing that depicted loving same-sex families.

Speaking with the BBC Tsvetkova noted that the basis for the criminal charges stemmed from the public posts in the “Vkontakte” group “Vagina Monologues”, which was dedicated to feminist art and body positivity: it laid out artistic images of a naked female body.

The pictures of Tsvetkova herself, in particular, depicted women with wrinkles, stretch marks and body hair. Each of the drawings was signed with the phrase “Living women have …” and ended with the words “- and that’s fine!”

Tsvetkova’s posts from VK.com

Russian independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta reported that Dmitry Oblasov, the FSB regional head spurred on at the request of the Chief Prosecutor of Komsomolsk-on-Amur. wrote a letter to Victoria Tregubenko, Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Khabarovsk Territory, asking the commissioner to study the content of Tsvetkova’s social networks for criminal violations.

The intent was to see that if in addition to the alleged penal code violations for production of pornography, provisions of the federal anti-LGBTQ ‘propaganda’ law had also been violated because of her advocacy for Russian LGBTQ+ people.

The criminal case by the Central District Court of Komsomolsk-on-Amur began in earnest in the spring of 2021. While criminal case endlessly endured delays and drags on, a civil case against a Russian right-wing extremist media outlet brought by Tsvetkova and her mother over use of video of the initial FSB raid on her house in 2019 that was leaked by FSB officers was lost and the women found themselves being forced to pay 180,000 rubles to that media outlet – allegedly for “defamation.”

The criminal proceedings against Tsvetkova, who faces up to six years in prison, are closed to the press and public.

The trial against Tsvetkova is coming to an end. On 14 June, the prosecution requested a jail term of three and a half years for “production and dissemination of pornography” for her VK.com posts.

The final hearing is expected to take place on 12 July according to Amnesty International. Tsvetkova will make her final statement and the sentence will be handed down shortly after.

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Brittney Griner unable to speak with wife on anniversary

Calls to embassy phone in Moscow went unanswered on Saturday

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Brittney Griner (Photo courtesy of Lorie Shaull, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

MOSCOW — A State Department spokesperson on Tuesday admitted a “logistical error” prevented detained WNBA star Brittney Griner from speaking with her wife over the weekend.

Cherelle Griner told the Associated Press that her wife’s lawyers said she tried to call her 11 times “over a period of several hours” on Saturday, which was the couple’s fourth anniversary.

The AP reported the Russian government approved the call.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow, according to the AP, had given Brittney Griner a number that was to have allowed her to connect to her wife in Phoenix once an embassy staffer received the call. The AP reported each of the calls that Brittney Griner made went unanswered because nobody was at the desk where the phone was located. 

“I was distraught. I was hurt. I was done, fed up,” Cherelle Griner told the AP. “I’m pretty sure I texted BG’s agent and was like: ‘I don’t want to talk to anybody. It’s going to take me a minute to get my emotions together, and just tell everybody I’m unavailable right now.’ Because it just knocked me out. I wasn’t well, I’m still not well.”

Cherelle Griner said the call had been on her schedule for two weeks. She told the AP that she is “very pissed” about what happened.

“We deeply regret that Brittney Griner was unable to speak with her wife because of a logistical error,” the State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade on Tuesday in a statement.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Brittney Griner — a center for the Phoenix Mercury — after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department has determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

“We cannot call her a hostage,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told NBC News’ Keir Simmons on Monday. “She violated Russian law and now she is being prosecuted.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 14 spoke with Cherelle Griner. 

Officials with the State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs on June 13 met with Brittney Griner’s teammates to discuss her detention and efforts to secure her release. A Russian court the following day extended Brittney Griner’s detention through at least July 2.

“We are determined to bring her home along with Paul (Whelan, an American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia after a court convicted him of spying) and for that matter, any and every American who is being unjustly detained anywhere in the world,” said Blinken on June 15 during a roundtable with this reporter and five other LGBTQ and intersex journalists. ” “It’s something that I am personally focused on, and I want to leave it at that because it is obviously an ongoing issue. But just know that this is a matter of intense focus for us.”

The State Department spokesperson reiterated this point.

“We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas,” said the spokesperson. “We remain in regular contact with the families of those held hostage or wrongfully detained; we are grateful for their partnership and feedback; and we continue to work to ensure we are communicating and sharing information in a way useful to our families.”

Cherelle Griner told the AP that she no longer trusts the U.S. government.

“I find it unacceptable and I have zero trust in our government right now,” she said. “If I can’t trust you to catch a Saturday call outside of business hours, how can I trust you to actually be negotiating on my wife’s behalf to come home? Because that’s a much bigger ask than to catch a Saturday call.”

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