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Russian court dissolves St. Petersburg LGBTQ+ human rights group

Sphere provided legal and psychological assistance to LGBTQ+ people throughout Russia and provided emergency assistance in crisis situations

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Igor Kochetkov (Center with Pride flag) being detained by police in St. Petersburg during 2018 LGBTQ+/human rights protest (Photo by Alexander Lvovich Gorshkov/Facebook)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Last week the Kuibyshevsky District Court in St. Petersburg ordered that LGBTQ+ Human Rights Charitable Foundation Sphere be liquidated. In February, Russia’s Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit seeking to “liquidate” [disband & dissolve] Sphere Foundation, the legal entity under which the Russian LGBT Network operates, arguing the group’s activities run contrary to “traditional values.”

On Thursday, April 21, Judge Tatiana Kuzovkina ruled in favour of the Justice Ministry’s argument that the activities of Sphere ran contrary to the Russian state policy designed to preserve, expand and develop [the country’s] human capital.”

The ministry also accused 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 country’s infamous discriminatory “gay propaganda” 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.

Upon learning of the ruling Kochetkov stated; ” No, I’m not crying or crying. I’m proud of the work done by the Foundation in 11 years. It should be clear that the ministry and the court made this decision not on legal, but on ideological basis. No Russian law prohibits the activity of organizations that “do not correspond” to any values. There is simply no such basis in the law for the liquidation of NGOs. In this sense, the decision of the court is iconic – mandatory state ideology has returned. It is now official.” The he added; “The work continues. Their hands are dirty but too short to ban us.”

Tanya Lokshina, the Associate Director, Europe and Central Asia Division for Human Rights Watch wrote at the time of the lawsuit being filed;

“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.”

Vitaly Isakov, a lawyer from the Institute of Law and Public Policy, who defended Sphere during the court sessions narrated the timeline of events leading up to Kuzovkina’s ruling:

In the fall of 2021, the Russian Ministry of Justice began an unscheduled audit of the foundation. In the course of the audit, Sphere provided the Ministry of Justice with more than 5,000 pages of documents — the entire documentation flow over the past three years.

According to the act on the results of the audit, which Sphere received in December of 2021, the Ministry of Justice believes that gross violations were committed in the activities of the fund. Among the claims of the Ministry of Justice is that “all the actual activities of the organization are aimed at supporting the LGBT movement in Russia”: according to the state agency, the Constitution of the country enshrines “basic traditional family values”, and the foundation’s work is aimed at “changing the legislation and moral foundations in the Russian Federation.”

The claim for liquidation was filed with the Main Department of the Ministry of Justice on February 4  of 2022 following an unscheduled inspection. On February 9, 2022, the judge of the Kuibyshev Court, Irina Vorobyova, left the claim for the liquidation of the Sphere without movement.

The judge pointed out the need to refer to the specific grounds provided for by the current legislation, through which the plaintiff — the Ministry of Justice — asks for liquidation. The arguments in this part were not presented to the court.

Judging by the case file on the court’s website, the liquidation claim was filed again on March 9, 2022, with another judge, Tatyana Kuzovkina.

The court process began on March 29, when Isakov and Vyacheslav Samonov, a lawyer working with Sphere, appeared at the court hearing on behalf of the foundation. The hearing was postponed on technicality until April 21st.

Due to the pressure of the authorities, many organizations that contribute to solving a wide range of human rights problems, as well as the independent media, are forced to stop their work in Russia, — the news about the liquidation of the International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Center at the end of 2021 was especially shocking .

In many ways, a similar attempt to liquidate Sphere is the contribution of the ruling structures to negating the entire human rights movement, including the LGBT movement. After the start of unscheduled inspection concerning Sphere in November of 2021, the registers of “foreign agents” got longer with the inclusion of Igor Kochetkov, the founder of Sphere, and the Russian LGBT Network, a movement whose programs are implemented by Sphere.

By the end of 2021, the Far Eastern Center for LGBT and Victims of Violence “Mayak” and the St. Petersburg LGBT initiative group “Coming Out” also got into the registers of “foreign agents”.

The register of the Ministry of Justice clearly states that Mayak, Exit and the Russian LGBT Network receive funding from Sphere – in other words, these organizations were persecuted among the first because their connection with the Sphere is the most obvious, which means that actions against them are easier to justify.

There is every reason to believe that this trend will continue. At the moment, the register of “unregistered public associations that are recognized as foreign agents” consists of seven items, five of which are represented by LGBT initiatives: it seems that the authorities have created a separate list to suppress the LGBT movement, bypassing the need to name it as such directly.

Additionally, starting from November of 2021 5 LGBT+ activists found themselves recognized as ‘media-foreign agents’ by the Russian Ministry of Justice.

In particular, Sphere is the initiator of a campaign to counteract the discriminatory law banning “LGBT propaganda”, which stigmatizes the LGBT+ community, creates conditions of social hostility and complicates the living conditions of many people.

In addition, Sphere has contributed to helping hundreds of LGBT+ survivors of abduction and torture in the North Caucasus, helping them to start a new life in a safe place.

In 2017, when the massive nature of these crimes became known for the first time, the representatives of the foundation and its partners managed to activate the mechanisms of international investigation and draw the attention of the general public to this problem. At the same time, Russia demonstrated a complete lack of political will to recognize these crimes.

Isakov also released a statement on behalf of Sphere Thursday after the ruling:

As the team of Sphere, we declare: “The decision to liquidate the fund, especially on these grounds, is absolutely unreasonable and inconsistent with the norms of the law. We consider it politically and ideologically motivated, separately noting the state’s desire to destroy the majority of civil and human rights organizations in the country.

At the moment, our services continue to provide legal, psychological and emergency assistance to the LGBT+ community, and we will do everything possible to ensure that this work continues without interruption, regardless of the legal status of our team.

We cannot leave the community without protection and support at such a difficult time. Our team has always seen it as its duty to help the community and unite it based on the principles of human rights and humanitarianism.

Sphere provides legal and psychological assistance to LGBT+ people throughout the country, supports various initiatives and organizations, provides emergency assistance in crisis situations, and is engaged in monitoring and advocacy. 

Earlier this month the Justice Ministry on April 8, 2022 canceled the registration of Human Rights Watch, along with Amnesty International and 13 other offices of foreign nongovernmental organizations and foundations.

Human Rights Watch had maintained an office in Russia for 30 years. The action was announced just days after an appeals court upheld the liquidation of Russia’s human rights giant, Memorial.

“Human Rights Watch has been working on and in Russia since the Soviet era, and we will continue to do so,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This new iron curtain will not stop our ongoing efforts to defend the rights of all Russians and to protect civilians in Ukraine.”

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Russian Duma’s lower House passes anti-LGBTQ propaganda law

The legislation still needs the approval of the upper House and President Putin- introduces an expanded “all ages” anti-LGBTQ propaganda ban

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Russian State Duma (Госуда́рственная ду́ма) parliament building Moscow (Photo Credit: Russian Government)

MOSCOW – A new law which expands Russia’s “gay propaganda” law signed by Russian president Vladimir Putin in June 2013 passed the lower House of the State Duma (parliament) on Thursday.

The legislation, which still needs the approval of the upper House of the Duma and President Putin, introduces an expanded “all ages” ban on “propaganda of non-traditional relations,” paedophilia, as well as a ban on the dissemination of information about LGBTQ people in the media, the Internet, advertising, literature and cinema. 

The language of the bill, according to the official Russian state news agency TASS, also introduces a ban on issuing a rental certificate to a film if it contains materials that promote non-traditional sexual relations and preferences is established. The document also provides for the introduction of a mechanism that restricts children’s access to listening to or viewing LGBTQ+ information on paid services. 

The newly expanded law provides for the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, abbreviated as Roskomnadzor, to be vested with the right to determine the procedure for conducting monitoring on the Internet to identify information, access to which should be restricted in accordance with the federal law on information.

A requirement is also set on paid services to enter codes or perform other actions to confirm the age of the user. At the same time, access to LGBTQ+ information is prohibited for citizens under 18 years of age.

In addition, it provides for a ban on the sale of goods, including imported goods, containing information, the dissemination of which provides for administrative or criminal liability. 

Also, the law “on the protection of children from information harmful to their health and development” is supplemented by an article on the promotion of non-traditional sexual relations, pedophilia and information that can make children want to change their sex.

The latter language pointedly inserted as transgender people have been a frequent target of attacks by the Russian president in speeches recently blaming the West for a global decay in moral values that run counter to what Putin describes as “Russia’s strong morals.”

In an October speech announcing the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories, Putin attacked the Western nations on the issue of gay and transgender rights.

“Do we want children from elementary school to be imposed with things that lead to degradation and extinction?” he asked. “Do we want them to be taught that instead of men and women, there are supposedly some other genders and to be offered sex-change surgeries?”

It’s not just the Russian leader. Patriarch Kirill, head of the powerful and influential Russian Orthodox Church, portrayed the war with Ukraine as a struggle seeking to reject Western values and LGBTQ+ pride parades.

Vyacheslav Viktorovich Volodin, the Chairman of the State Duma and a former aide to Putin, is one of the bill’s sponsors. Volodin told TASS that the bill is “adopted exclusively in the interests of all Russians.”

“We have a different path, our grandfathers, great-grandfathers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers chose it. We have traditions, we have a conscience, we have an understanding that we need to think about children, families, the country, to preserve what we handed over by the parents,” Volodin said.

A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch told the Blade this expansion of the 2013 “gay propaganda” law “is a classic example of political homophobia. It targets vulnerable sexual and gender minorities for political gain.”

A young Russian LGBTQ+ activist, who asked to not be identified for fear of Russian government reprisals, spoke to the Blade from Helsinki, Finland, regarding this latest effort by the so-called conservative “family values” politicians in the Duma.

“This is a distraction to avoid the real news of dead young Russian males killed in his illegal war in Ukraine,” they said. “These [Russian obscenity] politicians want to so-called “non-traditional” LGBTQ+ lifestyles practised by lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people out of public life- make us erased. They and their so called colluders in church are ignorant of truth that LGBTQ+ people will exist no matter what. It is scientific fact not their religious fairytales and fictions.”

The activist also told the Blade they had fled to avoiding the Russian military draft enacted by Russia to replenish the levels of combat troops fighting in Putin’s illegal war, in the face of mounting casualties and wounded soldiers.

HRW noted that given the already deeply hostile climate for LGBTQ+ people in Russia, the organization warned there will be uptick in often-gruesome vigilante violence against LGBTQ+ people in Russia—frequently carried out in the name of protecting Russian values and Russia’s children.

Legal scholars say the vagueness of the bill’s language gives room for government enforcers to interpret the language as broadly as they desire, leaving members of the Russian LGBTQ+ community and their allies in a state of even greater fear and stress filled uncertainty.

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Russia

Report: Brittney Griner transferred to penal colony

Reuters noted WNBA star in country’s Mordovia region

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A Brittney Griner mural in D.C. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

YAVAS, Russia — Reuters on Thursday reported WNBA star Brittney Griner is now in a penal colony in Russia’s Mordovia region.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner — after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department has determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

A Russian court on Aug. 4 convicted Brittney Griner of smuggling drugs into the country and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony. An appellate court on Oct. 25 denied Brittney Griner’s appeal.

American officials have publicly acknowledged their willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia after his conviction for spying.

Brittney Griner’s lawyers earlier this month said authorities were transferring her to a penal colony. 

Her whereabouts had not been known for nearly two weeks. 

Reuters reported Brittney Griner is now at a female penal colony in Yavas, a city in Russia’s Mordovia region that is roughly 300 miles southeast of Moscow. Reuters noted Whelan is at a penal colony in the same area.

“We are aware of reports of her location, and in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team,” a State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade on Thursday. “However, the Russian Federation has still failed to provide any official notification for such a move of a U.S. citizen, which we strongly protest. The embassy has continued to press for more information about her transfer and current location.”

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Brittney Griner lawyers say Russia is transferring her to penal colony

WNBA star’s lawyers say whereabouts are unknown

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A Brittney Griner mural in D.C. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

MOSCOW — Lawyers for WNBA star Brittney Griner on Wednesday said Russian authorities are transferring her to a penal colony.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner — after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department has determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

A Russian court on Aug. 4 convicted Brittney Griner of smuggling drugs into the country and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony. An appellate court on Oct. 25 denied Brittney Griner’s appeal.

The Washington Post reported lawyers currently don’t know where Brittney Griner is.

American officials have publicly acknowledged their willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia after his conviction for spying.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Wednesday acknowledged the U.S. has “made a significant offer to the Russians to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions of American citizens.”

“In the subsequent weeks, despite a lack of good faith negotiation by the Russians, the U.S. government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with the Russians through all available channels,” said Jean-Pierre. “The U.S. government is unwavering in its commitment to its work on behalf of Brittney and other Americans detained in Russia — including fellow wrongful detainee Paul Whelan.”

“Every minute that Brittney Griner must endure wrongful detention in Russia is a minute too long,” she added. “As the administration continues to work tirelessly to secure her release, the president has directed the administration to prevail on her Russian captors to improve her treatment and the conditions she may be forced to endure in a penal colony.” 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his own statement echoed Jean-Pierre.

“Following a sham trial and the unjust sentencing of Brittney Griner, Moscow is transferring her from a prison in Moscow to a remote penal colony,” said Blinken. “It is another injustice layered on her ongoing unjust and wrongful detention.”

“As we work to secure Brittney Griner’s release, we expect Russian authorities to provide our embassy officials with regular access to all U.S. citizens detained in Russia, including Brittney, as is their obligation. Ensuring the health and welfare of U.S. citizen detainees in Russia is a priority, and we will continue to press for fair and transparent treatment for them all,” he added. “Our hearts are with Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, as well as their family, friends, and supporters, who all continue to suffer from Russia’s decision to wrongfully detain U.S. citizens. We continue to work relentlessly to bring them home. I am focused on doing so, as are so many others in the department. We will not relent until they are reunited with their loved ones.”

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Russia

White House Press Sec says U.S. officials met with Brittney Griner

“The U.S. government made a significant offer to the Russians to resolve the current unacceptable & wrongful detentions of American citizens”

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Closed circuit video screen capture from Russian Court during Griner appeal hearing (Screenshot/YouTube)

WASHINGTON – Speaking with reporters traveling with President Joe Biden aboard the presidential aircraft enroute to a campaign event Thursday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said U.S. Embassy officials in the Russian capital city have met with imprisoned WNBA star Brittney Griner.

“We are told she is doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances,” Jean-Pierre said.

In a separate tweet, U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said: “They saw firsthand her tenacity and perseverance despite her present circumstances. We continue to press for the immediate release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan and fair treatment for every detained American.”

“As we have said before, the U.S. government made a significant offer to the Russians to resolve the current unacceptable and wrongful detentions of American citizens, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan,” Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One.

“In the subsequent weeks, despite a lack of good-faith negotiations by the Russians, [the] U.S. government has continued to follow up on that offer and propose alternative potential ways forward with the Russians through all available channels,” she added.

The United States considers both Americans wrongfully detained State Department spokesperson Price and the White House Press Secretary have previously stated.

Griner is serving a nine-year prison sentence after a Russian court convicted her on the importation of illegal drugs after Russian customs officials found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Sheremetyevo International Airport.  Whelan is serving a 16-year prison sentence for espionage. 

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Russia appellate court upholds Brittney Griner sentence

WNBA star convicted of smuggling drugs into country

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A Brittney Griner banner in D.C. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

MOSCOW — A Russian appellate court on Tuesday upheld the 9-year sentence in a penal colony that WNBA star Brittney Griner received after her conviction for smuggling drugs into the country.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner — after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department has determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

A court on Aug. 4 convicted Brittney Griner of smuggling drugs into the country and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony. She appealed the sentence.

Cherelle Griner last month met with President Joe Biden at the White House.

American officials have publicly acknowledged their willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia after his conviction for spying.

“We are aware of the news out of Russia that Brittney Griner will continue to be wrongfully detained under intolerable circumstances after having to undergo another sham judicial proceeding today,” said National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Tuesday in a statement. “President Biden has been very clear that Brittney should be released immediately.” 

“In recent weeks, the Biden-Harris administration has continued to engage with Russia through every available channel and make every effort to bring home Brittney as well as to support and advocate for other Americans detained in Russia, including fellow wrongful detainee Paul Whelan,” added Sullivan. “The president has demonstrated that he is willing to go to extraordinary lengths and make tough decisions to bring Americans home, as his administration has done successfully from countries around the world. The administration remains in regular touch with representatives of the families, and we continue to admire their courage in the face of these unimaginable circumstances.”

It is currently unclear whether Brittney Griner’s lawyers will appeal Tuesday’s ruling.

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Russia

New push in Russia restricting talk of LGBTQ+ issues to all ages

LGBTQ+ community “has no rights in Russia at the moment” and that the legislation being considered by lawmakers would make things even worse

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LGBTQ+ Pride Flag flies in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow June 2022 (Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy/Twitter)

MOSCOW – A draft of legislation introduced this week in the Russian Duma (Parliament) has human rights and LGBTQ+ activists alarmed as it would expand the country’s notorious anti-gay propaganda law passed and signed into law by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013.

The draft bill would build on the 2013 legislation, which was aimed at prohibiting “promotion of non-traditional sexual relations” to Russian minors. One of the bill’s sponsor’s Alexander Khinshtein, an MP from the conservative political party, United Russia, told state media upon its introduction, “We propose to extend the ban for LGBT propaganda regardless of age, not just for children as it is today.” 

The proposed expansion comes as the Russian President continues his war against Ukraine and the illegal annexation of the four Eastern Ukrainian oblasts (states). In his speech two weeks ago justifying the annexation Putin sharply criticized the LGBTQ+ community:

“Do we really want, here, in our country, in Russia, instead of ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, to have ‘parent No. 1’, ‘parent No. 2’, ‘No. 3’? Have they gone completely insane? Do we really want … it drilled into children in our schools … that there are supposedly genders besides women and men, and [children to be] offered the chance to undergo sex change operations? … We have a different future, our own future,” Putin said.

Dilya Gafurova, head of the Russian LGBTQ rights organization Sphere, told the CBC that the LGBTQ+ community “has no rights in Russia at the moment” and that the legislation being considered by lawmakers would make things even worse.

“This will make them even more unprotected and even more invisible,” she told CBC News via email.

Reflecting on the proposed legislation Gafurova said, “Being LGBT+, ‘non traditionality’ is something that was weaponized continuously by the Russian regime to justify defending itself from ‘Western influence,’ as if being queer is something that can be influenced onto someone or flown in from abroad.”

“LGBT+ people are not regarded as people [in Russia],” Gafurova said, adding that some lawmakers “sincerely believe us to be the result of ‘propaganda’ or [that] we’re a means to an end, a justification for certain political actions.”

The Russian government has mobilized more men in Russia at Putin’s explicit direction for service in the Russian military in Ukraine. Russian losses on the battlefield have been heavy, especially in the past three weeks as Ukraine’s forces are retaking ground from the Russian military and are pushing the invaders back.

Those actions have caused hundreds of thousands of draft eligible Russian men to flee the country to avoid conscription.

Gafurova told the CBC that “the Russian military isn’t exactly known for acceptance toward queer people,” and she suspects many will have left the country for the same reasons their fellow compatriots have.

“They simply don’t want to serve and be a part of this unjustifiable and bloody war,” she added.

In a Sunday phone call, a source within the Russian government told the Blade they suspect that the recent push by parliamentarians to attack the LGBTQ+ community is a naked political ploy to shore up public support of Putin by ordinary citizens on a social and cultural issue that would unite them to back his homophobic and transphobic rhetoric.

“It’s another cynical diversion by some in the Duma to distract the masses from the reality of Putin’s criminality,” they told the Blade.

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