On India’s Independence Day: A promise unfulfilled for religious minorities

PM Modi in Washington
Washington: Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures while addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 8. PTI Photo (PTI6_8_2016_000187A)

“India lives as one; India grows as one; India celebrates as one,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered these lofty words to a joint session of U.S. Congress on June 8 of this year. The rosy picture he painted of India, however, is betrayed by the reality of communal strife and intolerance on the ground. India, the world’s largest democracy, was founded as a secular liberal democracy:  in essence a promise to all Indians of their fair share of prosperity and the pursuit of the good life regardless of religion, background, or creed.

Regretfully, as India celebrates its 70th Independence Day on August 15, that promise remains unfulfilled for the many Indians who are deprived of their equal rights through both government action and inaction.

There are two broad areas of concern. The first is the rising religious tensions linked to alleged government-backed Hindu nationalism and the corresponding rise of communal violence and religious intolerance. The second is the lack of redress through courts, shown acutely by extrajudicial violence, custodial killings by the police, and unbearably long court waiting times. Both of these areas of concern have lack of accountability at their core, with perpetrators of both religious- and non-religious-based violence going unpunished.

India has always been a melting pot of traditions, religions, and languages and is constitutionally a secular country to account for such diversity. The increasing atmosphere of Hindu nationalism has perverted those principles with disastrous results: there have been more incidents of communal violence and a stronger culture of impunity for officials who commit religion-based crimes.

Since Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, the government has permitted the virulent ideology of right-wing Hindu groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to become commonplace within government and society. Testifying before the U.S. Congress Tom Lantos Commission for Human Rights hearing on religious minorities in India in June, Indian journalist Ajit Saha described the impact of the RSS as the “sine qua non about human rights in India.” This ideology has been linked with increased rates of vigilantism against religious minorities. Such acts include killing a Muslim man for allegedly eating a cow, disrupting marriages between Muslims and Hindus, and forcibly converting Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. All this has happened with official complacency. “The prime minister [has] not weighed in to admonish the culprits,” noted Saha.

Communal Violence
India has a long and tragic history of communal violence which in the Indian context can be defined as violence directed against religious or linguistic minorities. The most significant occurrences in the recent past were located in Uttar Pradesh( 2013), Odisha ( 2007-2008), Gujarat ( 2002), and Delhi in (1984). The scale of violence can be immense. The Gujarati violence was particularly noteworthy leaving “between 1,200-2,500 Muslims dead, destroyed homes, and forced 100,000 people to flee.”  Similarly the Delhi riots in 1984 “resulted in deaths of more than 3,000 Sikhs.” The rates of communal violence have increased substantially under Modi, “India experienced a 17% increase in communal violence, when compared to the previous year. In 2015, there were 751 reported incidents of communal violence, up from 644 in 2014.” Included in this violence in 2015 were attacks on Christian churches.

There are numerous problems for Indians seeking redress for communal violence. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that,
“NGOs, religious leaders, and human rights activists allege religious bias and corruption in these investigations and adjudications. Additionally, religious minority communities claim that eye-witnesses often are intimidated not to testify, especially when local political, religious, or societal leaders have been implicated in cases.”

Lack of Accountability: Gujarat
The involvement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP officials in the violent riots in Gujarat in 2002 and the lack of accountability are of particular concern. While Modi, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, was responsible for coordinating the government’s response to the violent mobs, there is strong evidence to suggest that top officials actively refused to intervene in the violent riots. The tragic case of Ehsan Jafri, the Congress MP who gave terrified Muslims safe haven in his home during the Gulberg Society riots, is telling. According to eyewitnesses, Jafri made frantic calls to top Gujarati officials, including Modi himself, to no avail. Eventually Jafri offered himself to the gathering mob outside his house in an effort to save those inside his home. He was butchered by the mob while they set his home alight, killing most inside. Many BJP officials were acquitted from charges relating to the riots. Civil society activists like Teesta Setalvad have protested the judicial proceedings, citing the hostility of investigators towards witnesses and the restricted purview of the investigation.

Retaliation Against Civil Society
The draconian Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) is being used to restrict funding and revoke licenses of NGOs that criticize the government. Activist Setalvad has been a prime target of government retaliation for her work seeking justice for the Gujarat victims and a new trial for Modi and other Gujarat officials implicated in the 2002 violence. As Ajit Saha testified, “The Supreme Court had to stay attempts to arrest her on charges of financial embezzlement through the Citizens for Justice & Peace, her NGO. Her offices and homes have been raided several times, failing each time to recover incriminating evidence.” It is alleged that the registration of Lawyers Collective, an Indian NGO dedicated to human rights issues, was suspended because of its legal assistance to Setalvad.  Similarly, Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was refused admission to a flight to London to testify to Parliament about human rights abuses in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Custodial Killings
There is a terrifyingly high number of people in India killed in police custody. More than 14,000 Indians died in the custody of police or in prisons during 2001-10 at a rate of four a day for ten years. The vast majority of deaths, 99.9 percent according to The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), is the result of torture. “Torture remains endemic, institutionalised and central to the administration of justice,” reports the ACHR.

Encounter Killings
Another pervasive extrajudicial practice is “encounter killings.” Officially, these are deaths resulting from encounters with suspects. But in reality, these tend to be outright murders by police. As explained by Ajit Sahi, “Nearly all such encounters are suspected of being “fake,” that is, pre-apprehended men and women killed in cold blood.”  The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution’s 2013 report on India noted that, “[A]ccording to the NHRC [National Human Rights Council], 2,560 deaths during encounters with police were reported between 1993 and 2008. Of this number, 1,224 cases were regarded by the NHRC as “fake encounters.”

Prime Minister Modi spoke about the ideal India in his speech to U.S. Congress in June. An India united rather than fragmented.  As it is, India is riven with religious conflict and intolerance. People are killed for their communal identities in mob violence while officials either take no action or, themselves, contribute to the killing.

If India is to ever achieve the greater goal of Indian unity, its leaders must continue to acknowledge and correct shortcomings, including holding all perpetrators of violence accountable.

Additional reading by The Advocates for Human Rights:

India’s Politics Without Principles 

Hold Modi Accountable

The Advocates’ Robin Phillips Testifies Before Congressional Committee

Joint Written Statement on Religious Minorities in India submitted to United Nations Human Rights Council

By Adam Krok, a sophomore at Yale (class of 2019) expecting to major in Ethics, Politics and Economics. From Johannesburg, South Africa, he is 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program through the Bulldogs on the Lakes program.  He enjoys nothing more than a good argument or a compelling case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for LGBTI Rights in Africa

An asylum seeker from Uganda covers his head with a paper bag in order to protect his identity. (Photo: Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters)

Today, the Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down that country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act, which had been signed into law in February of this year. And earlier this summer, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Africa’s regional human rights body, issued a landmark resolution calling on its member states to respect and protect the human rights of sexual minorities. Meanwhile, however, as friends and family of Cameroonian human rights defender Eric Ohena Lembembe recently gathered to mark the one-year anniversary of his brutal murder, the police investigation remains at a standstill.

Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act Struck down on procedural grounds
Uganda’s new Anti-Homosexuality Act imposed harsh penalties for “homosexuality” and “aggravated homosexuality,” and even criminalized “aiding and abetting homosexuality” and promoting homosexuality. A Ugandan LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) rights group has alleged in ongoing proceedings in U.S. court that American Scott Lively played a central role in lobbying for the legislation.

Ten petitioners, including academics, journalists, human rights groups, activists, and members of parliament from the ruling and opposition parties, challenged the law on several grounds, arguing that it violates the privacy and dignity rights enshrined in the Ugandan Constitution, as well as the right to be free from discrimination and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. They also argued a procedural point, contending the act was adopted unlawfully because parliament lacked a quorum when it voted on the bill.

The Court considered the procedural argument first, and agreed with the petitioners. The five-judge panel ruled that the speaker of parliament acted unlawfully in allowing the bill to come up for a vote, because there were at least three objections that not enough members of parliament were present. “The speaker was obliged to ensure that there was a quorum,” the court ruled. “We come to the conclusion that she acted illegally.” The vote was unlawful, the court concluded, and therefore the act is null and void.

Because the court ruled on procedural grounds, rather than on the merits, the court’s decision does not bar parliament from adopting an identical law in the future. And homosexuality remains a criminal act in Uganda, as it was before the new law was signed. The Ugandan government is considering whether to appeal the decision of the Constitutional Court to the Ugandan Supreme Court.

The Advocates and partners mobilize in wake of Cameroonian activist’s murder
Eric Ohena LembembeUganda is not the only country in Africa where laws, the justice system, and societal homophobia endanger LGBTI people and human rights defenders who work on their behalf. In advance of the African Commission’s 54th Ordinary session in October 2013, The Advocates for Human Rights and its partner organizations, Le Reseau des Defenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC), Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), and L’Association pour la Defense des Droits des Homosexuels (ADEFHO), submitted a report to the African Commission detailing rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) in Cameroon.

The report came on the heels of the brutal torture and murder of Cameroonian human rights defender Eric Ohena Lembembe, executive director of CAMFAIDS. Just weeks before his murder, as the report noted, Lembembe had spoken out about the dangers facing human rights defenders in Cameroon working on behalf of LGBTI people:

“There is no doubt: Anti-gay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”

Before the African Commission session, REDHAC and CAMFAIDS also participated in an NGO forum that culminated in an oral presentation to the African Commission and the NGO forum’s adoption of a resolution on violence and human rights violations based on imputed or actual sexual orientation and gender identity. The African Commission’s history-making resolution mirrors the resolution adopted by the NGO forum.

Coalition condemns Cameroonian authorities’ lackluster response to Lembembe’s murder, calls for thorough and fair investigation
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, along with CAMFAIDS, ADEFHO, REDHAC, Alternatives Cameroon, and MDHC, recently denounced the dysfunctional justice system in the case of Lembembe’s murder. One year after the murder, the investigating judge has summoned only Lembembe’s family members. Authorities never took any photographs or fingerprints at the scene of the crime. The medical certificate indicating the nature of the death does not mention the burns and other obvious injuries visible on Lembembe’s body. In what seems to be an attempt at intimidation, several of Lembembe’s friends and family members were placed in police custody early in the investigation.

Coalition members fear that the attitude of the police and judiciary authorities in the investigation reflects those institutions’ disregard for the respect and protection of LGBTI people’s human rights in Cameroon. “The Cameroonian authorities’ inertia in this case is all the more worrying that it might reinforce the sentiment of impunity of the authors of the crimes and persecutions against LGBTI people, and feed the stigma and discrimination against these people and the defenders of their rights,” added Michel Togue, a Cameroonian lawyer and Legal Advisor for CAMFAIDS.

The coalition renewed its call for Cameroonian authorities to conduct an independent, effective, rigorous, impartial, and transparent investigation in order to identify the perpetrators, bring them before an independent, competent, and impartial court in accordance with international and regional human rights protection instruments, and to apply criminal, civil, and/or administrative sanctions as provided for by the law.

African Commission’s landmark resolution condemns anti-LGBTI violence on the continent, calls for end to impunity
The African Commission’s resolution is particularly timely in light of the breakdown in the investigation into Lembembe’s murder. The Resolution on Protection against Violence and other Human Rights Violations against Persons on the basis of their real or imputed Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity  unequivocally confirms that violence and human rights abuses directed at individuals based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity breach the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. This is the Commission’s first official resolution on the issue of LGBTI human rights.

The Commission expresses alarm at the ongoing violence, abuse, and discrimination against sexual minorities by state and non-state actors as well as the failure of law enforcement to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators. The Commission directs state parties to the African Charter to comply with their obligations to protect all Africans from human rights abuses and violence and urges them to enact and enforce laws to prohibit and punish violence directed at the LGBTI community and its defenders.

Laws and public attitudes in many African countries reflect and foster widespread discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
The African Commission is responsible for setting the human rights standards to be observed by states that have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; essentially every African country except South Sudan and Morocco. A significant number of those states outlaw same-sex activity, and African governments continue to enact new repressive legislation, such as the Anti-Homosexuality Act that the Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down today.

In January, the president of Nigeria signed a law that mandates a 14-year prison sentence for anyone entering a same-sex union and a 10-year term for anyone “who supports the registration, operation and sustenance of gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meetings.” “Supporters” would include health centers providing treatment and counseling for AIDS and other health concerns as well as civil society organizations and human rights defenders. The potential impact on HIV transmission and treatment alone is tremendous, yet public opinion appears to favor these laws.

According to research conducted by the Pew Research Center, more than 90 percent of the population in Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Senegal consider same sex activity “unacceptable,” according to The Global Divide on Homosexuality. Over the past year, reports of mob violence, murder, rape, assault, arbitrary arrests, and detention have increased.

African Commission on Human and People's RightsAfrican Commission Resolution is groundbreaking step toward tolerance
In this context, the resolution is especially meaningful and groundbreaking. Taking a firm stand against the widespread intolerance of non-conforming sexual minorities, the Commission has articulated a legal basis for the protection against discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity and advised its member states that their commitments to universal equality under the African Charter require them to respect the human rights of sexual minorities.

The resolution states:

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Commission), meeting at its 55th Ordinary Session held in Luanda, Angola, from 28 April to 12 May 2014:

Recalling that Article 2 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter) prohibits discrimination of the individual on the basis of distinctions of any kind such as race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or any status;

Further recalling that Article 3 of the African Charter entitles every individual to equal protection of the law;

Noting that Articles 4 and 5 of the African Charter entitle every individual to respect of their life and the integrity of their person, and prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment;

Alarmed that acts of violence, discrimination and other human rights violations continue to be committed on individuals in many parts of Africa because of their actual or imputed sexual orientation or gender identity;

Noting that such violence includes ‘corrective’ rape, physical assaults, torture, murder, arbitrary arrests, detentions, extra-judicial killings and executions forced disappearances, extortion and blackmail;

Further alarmed at the incidence of violence and human rights violations and abuses by State and non-State actors targeting human rights defenders and civil society organisations working on issues of sexual orientation or gender identity in Africa;

Specifically condemns the situation of systematic attacks by State and non-state actors against persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;

Deeply disturbed by the failure of law enforcement agencies to diligently investigate and prosecute perpetrators of violence and other human rights violations targeting persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;

  1. Condemns the increasing incidence of violence and other human rights violations, including murder, rape, assault, arbitrary imprisonment and other forms of persecution of persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;
  2. Specifically condemns the situation of systematic attacks by State and non-state actors against persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identity;
  3. Calls on State Parties to ensure that human rights defenders work in an enabling environment that is free of stigma, reprisals or criminal prosecution as a result of their human rights protection activities, including the rights of sexual minorities; and
  4. Strongly urges States to end all acts of violence and abuse, whether committed by State or non-state actors, including by enacting and effectively applying appropriate laws prohibiting and punishing all forms of violence including those targeting persons on the basis of their imputed or real sexual orientation or gender identities, ensuring proper investigation and diligent prosecution of perpetrators, and establishing judicial procedures responsive to the needs of victims.

Adopted at the 55th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Luanda, Angola, 28 April to
12 May 2014.

Julie Shelton
Julie Shelton

By Julie Shelton and Amy Bergquist. Guest-blogger Julie Shelton was the team leader on The Advocates for Human Rights’ trip to Cameroon in February 2013. The team conducted a pro bono needs assessment with over 35 Cameroonian organizations that work to promote human rights and rule of law. Shelton led the project to draft the shadow report to the African Commission on LGBTI rights in Cameroon. She was honored for her volunteer work on June 25 at The Advocates’ Human Rights Awards Dinner.

More from The Advocates Post on LGBTI rights in Africa:

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

Recent Anti-LGBTI Laws Violate Human Rights

African Commission to Consider Violence Perpetrated Because of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

“Look at the details of Eric Ohena Lembembe’s life and you will understand why he died.”

Top photo: Jessica Rinaldi, Reuters

The Advocates’ Robin Phillips Testifies before Congressional Committee

RobinTLHRCTestimony

Robin Phillips, executive director of The Advocates for Human Rights, testified today (April 4, 2014) at a hearing before the United States Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission about religious minorities in India.

Robin Phillips’ oral testimony, “The Plight of Religious Minorities in India”:

For more than 30 years, The Advocates for Human Rights has worked with diaspora communities—people living outside their country of origin or ancestry who retain ties to and interest in that country. Some come to the United States seeking asylum after facing religious persecution. Others come as professionals or students, or to join family members. And some are second- or third-generation immigrants. They are part of our communities, they are your constituents, and their voices should help inform our policies toward their countries of origin and ancestry.

Indian diaspora sounds alarm about religious freedom in India

The Indian diaspora groups with whom we work have consistently expressed concern about religious freedom in India. We share their concerns, including: communal violence; impunity for the instigators of such violence and those in government who may be complicit; anti-conversion laws; vague anti-terrorism laws that facilitate profiling and persecution of Muslims; police and armed forces practices such as encounter killings and torture targeting Muslims; and a culture of impunity for such practices. These practices violate international human rights standards.

Consistent with the concerns we hear, the Pew Research Center recently ranked India as a country with “very high social hostilities involving religion” and “high” government restrictions on religion.

Indian diasporans around the world have been sounding the alarm as elections approach. In the first eight months of 2013, there were 451 incidents of communal violence, up from 410 in all of 2012. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief cautions that “political exploitation of communal distinctions” presents “a real risk that [large scale] communal violence might happen again.”

Multifaceted impunity fuels communal violence

Impunity fuels communal violence. This impunity is multifaceted: officials do not hold private parties accountable for communal violence; courts do not hold government officials accountable for sanctioning or encouraging that violence; political parties rally behind political leaders who are implicated in communal violence; obstruction of justice and witness intimidation are commonplace in court procedures; immunity laws shield security forces from accountability; and officials accept torture and extrajudicial killings as the norm.

Some examples raised by Indian diasporans highlight these points. Cases brought against officials alleged to be complicit in the 2002 Gujarat violence have been dismissed for lack of evidence after witnesses were intimidated and prosecutors and judges effectively stood in as defense counsel. UN human rights bodies have described the proceedings as “flawed from the outset,” reflecting concerns of religious bias and high levels of corruption. Whistleblowers in Gujarat law enforcement have faced threats and arrests.

Wounds of past communal violence still fresh, especially for women

The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women visited India last May. She observed that communal violence in India “is frequently explained away by implying that equal aggression was noted on both sides.” By characterizing this violence as “riots,” the government “den[ies] the lack of security for religious . . . minorities, . . . disregarding their right to equal citizenship.” “This issue is of particular concern to many,” the Special Rapporteur noted at the end of her visit last May, “as the wounds of the past are still fresh for women who were beaten, stripped naked, burnt, raped [or] killed because of their religious identity, in the Gujarat massacre of 2002.”

In some communal attacks, police reportedly arrest victims and protect the attackers. And the government has been negligent in its duties to victims displaced by communal violence who are afraid to return home. These internally displaced persons continue to languish in subhuman conditions in isolated settlements.

Human rights defenders and Muslims face harassment, threats, arbitrary arrest

Human rights defenders report serious problems with increased police harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention of Muslims based on false charges of terrorism. Religious minorities have been targeted under an anti-terrorism law that expands the definition of “terrorism”; authorizes warrantless search, seizure, and arrest; and allows detention without charge for up to 180 days.

Indian police confident of impunity for torturing people

While in custody, many suspects are also subject to torture and ill-treatment. The independent Ravi Chander Commission reported that Muslim men were held without charge for several weeks at illegal detention centers and tortured to extract forced confessions of terrorism offenses. In my own personal discussions with Indian police officers, they have been alarmingly candid about their use of torture as a legitimate interrogation technique, signifying a complete disregard for international standards and confidence of impunity for these human rights violations. Not surprisingly, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture’s request for permission to visit India has been pending for more than 20 years.

Attorneys for religious minorities face threats, violence

The due process rights of accused religious minorities have been further diminished by interference with obtaining legal counsel. Attorneys representing Gujarat victims have faced threats, intimidation, and hostility from colleagues. Multiple bar associations have issued official or unofficial resolutions instructing members not to represent terrorism suspects; there have also been reported incidents of harassment and physical violence against lawyers who represent Muslim defendants.

“Encounter killings” have become state policy in India

In addition, “encounter killings,” or killings that occur during staged clashes between security forces and alleged armed suspects are becoming increasingly common. The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions reported last year that encounter killings “have become virtually a part of unofficial State policy.”

U.S. must ensure India adequately protects rights of religious minorities

As the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief observed after a 2008 visit to India, “impunity emboldens forces of intolerance.” There is a serious possibility of increased violence against religious minorities in India in connection with the upcoming elections. India cannot abrogate its obligation to protect the human rights of its citizens in the name of national security. The United States and India stand as democratic and pluralistic nations. As such, we must hold each other accountable to the highest standards of human rights protection. We encourage the United States to take strong bilateral and multilateral action to ensure that the rights of religious minorities in India are adequately protected and that India complies with all of its international human rights obligations.

Robin Phillips’ testimony begins at approximately :59:15 in the video of the hearing:

Read The Advocates for Human Rights’ November 2011 report on religious discrimination to the UN Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review of India, prepared in collaboration with the Indian American Muslim Council and Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association.

Diaspora organizations and individuals who want to shape human rights in their countries of origin or ancestry can use The Advocates’ new toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice & Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities.

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

LGBT_activist_attacked_in_St.-Petersburg

When I was in high school, U.S.-Soviet “space bridges” were popular: a studio audience of Americans would connect up live with a studio audience in the USSR, and they’d pose each other questions with assistance from celebrity hosts like Phil Donahue and Vladimir Pozner. In July 1986, during a “women to women” space bridge between Boston and Leningrad, a middle-aged Boston woman asked the Soviet audience whether their TV commercials were sexually suggestive, as American ads were. In Leningrad, a blonde woman took the microphone and responded solemnly: “Cекса y нас нет, и мы категорически против этого.” (“There is no sex here, and we are categorically opposed to it.”) You can watch the exchange here:


Her response prompted howls of laughter from others in the Leningrad audience, but the phrase stuck. Even today, you can hear Russians repeat the saying, “In the USSR there is no sex.”

So in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, when the mayor of Sochi proclaimed, “У нас в городе геев нет,” (“In our city there are no gays,”) I’m sure plenty of Russian speakers joined me in a nostalgic chuckle. Russians have long been a bit prudish on matters of sex. But Russia’s new law banning “gay propaganda” reflects more than mere prudishness. It is part of a concerted effort to deny the very existence of Russians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI). And some Russians have taken it upon themselves to actively and openly persecute people who are LGBTI, or who support LGBTI rights.

Times have changed

When I lived in Moscow, from 1990-1992, LGBTI people were generally left alone. One of my good friends, a gay American studying at Moscow State University, wore a pink triangle pin all the time and never faced any negative repercussions. “No one ever bothered me for the triangle or for being gay,” he recalled. “In fact, it seems harder to be gay in Russia now than it was then. Sure it was all sort of underground, but people weren’t all whipped up like they are these days.”

Indeed, much has changed since then. In 1993, the Russian Federation repealed the Stalin-era law criminalizing consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex. But in recent years, “anti-gay sentiment has exploded in Russia . . . , fed by economic woes, government corruption, and crumbling infrastructures,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

After the Russian Duma passed laws last summer prohibiting “gay propaganda” and banning some international adoptions to countries that recognize marriage equality, LGBTI advocates in Russia reported a sharp uptick in anti-gay violence.

Vigilante violence incited

Members of Pussy Riot performing in Red Square Photo credit: Denis Bochkarev, Wikimedia Commons
Members of Pussy Riot performing in Red Square
Photo credit: Denis Bochkarev, Wikimedia Commons

The Russian government’s crackdown on dissent has fueled private acts of violence directed at government critics, as well as at LGBTI people and their allies. In Sochi on Wednesday, for example, as members of the performance art collective Pussy Riot prepared to perform, a group of men surrounded and attacked them with traditional Cossack whips. (A Duma member from the Zabaikalsk region of Siberia recently called for a law allowing gays to be publicly flogged by Cossacks.) Pussy Riot has long been critical of the Putin government and has spoken out against the gay propaganda law.

Although the popular Russian social media site В Kонтакте (VK.com)–especially the VK-based online LGBTI teen support group Дети-404 (Deti-404)–can be a lifeline for gay youth, homophobic harassment is commonplace on the site.

With the help of VK and other social media, and spurred by prominent Russians like Putin who repeatedly conflate gay people with child molesters, Russian neo-Nazi groups and other gangs have taken it upon themselves to go on “safaris” to “hunt” gays. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch released this graphic, disturbing video explaining how some of the vigilante groups operate:

Occupy Pedophilia, one of the neo-Nazi groups featured in the video, claims to have 30 branches and to have kidnapped and assaulted nearly 1,500 gay Russians over the last 18 months. The group asserts that it is targeting child molesters, but most of its targets are young gay men, and anti-gay rhetoric and symbols feature prominently in the group’s attacks. According to the Spectrum Human Rights Alliance, the group uses VK to target teenagers who reply to same-sex personal advertisements. Group members beat up and humiliate their victims, and then question them about their sex lives; despite the group’s purported interest in tracking down pedophiles, they never make references to children in these videotaped interrogations. The group coordinates its attacks and recruits new members through VK, where it has over 90,000 followers and regularly uploads videos showing victims being violently attacked and humiliated. YouTube returns over 23,000 search results for the group.

An ABC news broadcast last week focused on another group that calls itself “Morality Patrol,” which uses a roaming van to videotape people coming and going from a gay bar in Moscow. Then, there’s another group, called “God’s Will,” which calls for gays to be stoned to death.

And there have been other troubling acts of vigilante violence:

Journalist Elena Kostyuchenko Photo Credit: Valerij Ledenev, flickr
Journalist Elena Kostyuchenko
Photo Credit: Valerij Ledenev, flickr
  • At her first gay pride parade in 2011, journalist Elena Kostyuchenko was punched in the skull, causing her to partially lose her hearing. The police detective assigned to her case, who has seen a video of the attack and knows the name of her assailant, asked her lawyer, “Why would she go to the street?”
  • On the subway escalator after the attack, members of “God’s Will” caught Kostyuchenko’s girlfriend in a headlock and punched her five times in the face.
  • In May 2013, a young man in Volgograd was allegedly raped with beer bottles and had his skull smashed after he came out to a group of friends.
  • In June 2013, a gay man was kicked and stabbed to death by a group of friends in Kamchatka; they then burned his body.

“The latest laws against so-called gay propaganda, first in the regions and then on the federal level, have essentially legalised violence against LGBT people, because these groups of hooligans justify their actions with these laws,” Igor Kotchekov, head of the Russian LGBT Network, recently told the Guardian. “[This vigilante violence] is an action to terrorise the entire LGBT community.”

Violent vigilantes enjoy impunity

These Russian anti-gay vigilante groups operate openly, and even post videos of their exploits on social media sites, but Russian authorities don’t seem to take the violence seriously. On the eve of the start of the Sochi Olympics, BBC Channel Four released “Hunted,” a 50-minute documentary about these vigilante groups. The Russian embassy in London lashed out, calling the film part of a “well-engineered campaign of slander” and “hate propaganda” designed to damage Russia’s reputation just before the games.  In noting that the head of Occupy Pedophilia had been arrested and charged with extremism, the embassy appeared to defend the group, saying, “As its name suggests, [it] targets only paedophiles both straight and gay.”

Occupy Pedophilia groups have “so far enjoyed almost total impunity for their treatment of homosexuals. None has been prosecuted and the group even appears to have tacit official support. Edited versions of the gang’s videos have even been broadcast on a local television station.”

(U.S. extremists are also coming to Russia’s defense. Scott Lively, who campaigned for propaganda laws in Russia and other countries, called the Human Rights Watch video a “hoax,” asserting that LGBTI “activists are masters of public deception.”)

In Russia, victims of vigilante violence fear reporting these attacks to the police, knowing they may face even more violence at the hands of law enforcement, and fearing that filing a report will “out” them to family, colleagues, neighbors, or employers. And when they do report the attacks, police dismiss them and say the victims brought the violence upon themselves. According to Kochetkov, of 20 homophobic attacks that were recently reported to the police in Russia, only “four were investigated and only one resulted in a court case.” One attorney representing a victim of a homophobic attack reported that she and her client were attacked by a group of skinheads as they tried to enter the courthouse: “We called the police, but they didn’t come.”

“Gay propaganda” law prompts more Russians to join the vigilante bandwagon

Citizen “complaints” fuel much of Russian authorities’ enforcement of the propaganda law:

  • Timur Isaev trolls social media and uses a videocamera to identify LGBTI people and then report them to authorities. He specializes in tracking down LGBTI teachers, outing them, and getting them fired. He also targets teachers who are LGBTI allies. He also stalked a support group for LGBTI families online, and then reported an upcoming meeting to the police, suspecting a minor would be present. He even tracked down a 14-year-old girl in the small town of Dyatkova after she held a solo demonstration against the propaganda law, and reported her to her school’s principal. The girl was disciplined by a government commission, which threatened to take her to court if she continued to express her views in public. Isaev boasts that he has contacted relatives and school principals of more than a dozen openly LGBTI teens.
  • Vitali Milonov, a local St. Petersburg lawmaker, filed several complaints with authorities about Deti-404 online support group founder Elena Klimova, who faced a potential fine of 100,000 rubles and a shut-down of her site. A district court acquitted her this morning, but Milonov has vowed to appeal the decision.
  • A teenager in Arkhangelsk complained to authorities after seeing online images of an activist’s protest in Kazan, over 1,000 kilometers away. The teenager said he was prompted by his father, who was bitter because his wife had left him for another woman. The activist was fined 4,000 rubles.
  • A group of parents in Smolensk is charging their children’s school with violating the propaganda law because a teacher of 7- and 8-year-olds last Friday encouraged her students to make Valentine’s Day cards for each other, and said that it didn’t matter whether the recipients were boys or girls.

And in the Khabarovsk region, a parent group complained to their school about a new 6th grade student who was “unusual” and “acted gay.” The parents asked the school to intervene and cease the 12-year-old boy’s “sexual harassment”–even though he had never done anything to any other student. The day after the parent group raised the issue in a meeting with the student’s homeroom teacher, the boy’s parents withdrew him from the school. Similar incidents are reported in other rural schools in Russia, according to Khabarovsk Commissioner for Children’s Rights Svetlana Zhukova.

This post is the fourth in a five-part series in The Advocates Post about LGBTI rights in Russia and the Sochi Olympics. Part 1 took a look at why the Sochi Olympics in 2014 are important to LGBTI rights in Russia and the rest of the world.  Part 2  examined the provisions of Russia’s propaganda law, its effect on children, and its origins. Part 3 explored how Russian authorities are enforcing the propaganda law. Part 5 will analyze a variety of approaches that human rights advocates in Russia and around the world are taking to press for reform of these laws.

More posts in this series:

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

For information about vigilante violence directed at LGBTI people in Cameroon, read The Advocates’ shadow report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and these related posts:

African Commission to Consider Violence Perpetrated Because of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity

“Look at the details of Eric Ohena Lembembe’s life and you will understand why he died.”

By: Amy Bergquist, staff attorney with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights

Top photo courtesy Roma Yandolin, Wikimedia Commons