Russia’s top court bans LGBT+ activism as ‘extremist’ in latest crackdown

The Supreme Court backs request fom Vladimir Putin’s government – despite the LGBT+ ‘movement’ being not one defined entity. Activists fear ruling will bring broad swathe of arrests and prosecutions

Chris Stevenson
Thursday 30 November 2023 13:39 GMT
<p>The move effectively outlaws LGBT+ activism across the country</p>

The move effectively outlaws LGBT+ activism across the country

Russia’s top court has ruled that LGBT+ activists should be designated as “extremists” and issued a ban against such work – the most drastic step in a years-long crackdown on the community in the country.

This effectively outlaws LGBT+ activism across the country, in a move that representatives of the gay and transgender communities fear will lead to arrests and prosecutions.

The hearing took place behind closed doors and with no defendant. Multiple rights activists have pointed out that the lawsuit targeted the “international civic LGBT movement”, which is not an entity but rather a broad and vague definition that would allow Russian authorities to crack down on any individuals or groups deemed to be part of the “movement”.

In a statement announcing a lawsuit filed to the court earlier this month, Russia’s justice ministry argued that authorities had identified “signs and manifestations of an extremist nature” by an LGBTQ+ “movement” operating in Russia, including “incitement of social and religious discord”, although it offered no details or evidence. In its ruling, the court declared the “movement” to be extremist and banned it in Russia.

“Despite the fact that the justice ministry demands to label a nonexistent – ‘the international civic LGBT movement’ – extremist, in practice it could happen that the Russian authorities, with this court ruling at hand, will enforce it against LGBT+ initiatives that work in Russia, considering them a part of this civic movement,” Max Olenichev, a human rights lawyer who works with the Russian LGBT+ community, told the Associated Press ahead of the hearing.

The ruling is the latest in more than a decade of restrictions on LBGT+ rights under Vladimir Putin, who has put what he calls “traditional family values” at the centre of his appeal to the Russian public.

In 2013, the Kremlin adopted legislation known as the “gay propaganda” law, banning any public endorsement of “nontraditional sexual relations” to children. In 2020, constitutional reforms pushed through by Mr Putin to extend his rule by two more terms also included a provision to outlaw same-sex marriage.

After sending troops into Ukraine in 2022, the Kremlin ramped up its comments about protecting “traditional values” from what it called the West's “degrading” influence, in what many have seen as an attempt to legitimise the invasion as Western nations have lined up to support Ukraine. The language from Mr Putin regarding LGBT+ communities has ramped up as the Russian president has sought to set Moscow against the West in almost every facet of society.

In the wake of the Ukraine invasion, the authorities adopted a law banning propaganda of “nontraditional sexual relations” among adults, also, effectively outlawing any public endorsement of LGBT+ people.

Another law passed earlier this year prohibited gender-transitioning procedures and gender-affirming care for transgender people. The legislation prohibited any “medical interventions aimed at changing the sex of a person”, as well as changing one’s gender in official documents and public records. It also amended Russia’s family code by listing gender change as a reason to annul a marriage and adding those “who had changed gender” to a list of people who can’t become foster or adoptive parents.

Samples of Mr Putin’s degrading language were illustrated by a speech last year where he said the West was welcome to adopt “rather strange, in my view, new-fangled trends like dozens of genders, and gay parades” but had no right to impose them on other countries. Such rhetoric has been decried by nations across the world.

Mr Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters before the latest court decision was announced that the Kremlin was “not following” the case and had no comment on it.

The Supreme Court took around five hours to issue its ruling. The proceedings were closed to media, but reporters were allowed in to hear the decision.

LGBT+ groups had seen the decision as inevitable after the request by the justice ministry, which said – without giving examples – that “various signs and manifestations of extremist orientation, including the incitement of social and religious discord” had been identified in the activities of what it called the LGBT+ movement in Russia.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Turk, has repeatedly called on Russia to repeal its repression of LGBT+ rights and the UN as a whole, along with nations such as the US, UK and others have condemned such moves from the 2013 propaganda law onwards.

Russian officials have tried to reject accusations of discrimination, despite a crackdown on freedom of expression. Earlier this month, Russian media quoted Andrei Loginov, a deputy justice minister, as saying that “the rights of LGBT people in Russia are protected” legally. Mr Loginov spoke in Geneva, while presenting a report on human rights in Russia to the UN Human Rights Council, and argued that “restraining public demonstration of non-traditional sexual relationships or preferences is not a form of censure for them.”

For LGBT+ groups and activists, there are deep fears that this is just the beginning of another round of arrests.

“Of course, it’s very alarming, and I don’t remember the threat ever being so serious and real,” Alexei Sergeyev, an LGBT+ activist in St Petersburg, told Reuters earlier this month.

More than 100 groups are already banned in Russia as “extremist”. Previous listings, for example of the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious movement and organisations linked to opposition politician Alexei Navalny, have served as a prelude to arrests and court cases.

Mr Sergeyev said activities such as psychological and legal support, or even “meetings where you can just sit and drink tea”, would be driven underground, given the broad and vague nature of this ruling – depriving many LGBT+ people of support.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report

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