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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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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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