Russian authorities on Friday arrested more than a dozen LGBT rights advocates hours before the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Video from Moscow shows police arresting 10 LGBT activists–including two Swedish nationals–Red Square who held rainbow flags as they sung the Russian national anthem.
A source who remains in contact with activists in the Russian capital told the Washington Blade the arrests took place shortly before the opening ceremony began in Sochi. The advocates have been released, but the source said one of the activist’s cries was “heard outside of the police station” as officers beat him.
Anastasia Smirnova and a pregnant woman are among the four activists whom St. Petersburg authorities took into custody earlier on Friday. The activists were reportedly trying to take pictures of themselves holding a banner that read “discrimination is incompatible with the Olympic movement. Principle 6. Olympic charter” in reference to a campaign in support of adding sexual orientation to the Olympic charter before police took them into custody.
“Detention for a photo with a banner–isn’t it an amazing way to celebrate the opening of the games,” wrote Smirnova on her Facebook page while in custody at a St. Petersburg police station.
The arrests took place a day after U.S. Olympian David Pichler and Human Rights First staffers met with Smirnova, Russian LGBT Network Chair Igor Kochetkov and Maria Kozlovskaya of “Coming Out” in St. Petersburg.
“Having just met with Anastasia and her fellow activists yesterday, we were shocked to hear of her arrest,” said Shawn Gaylord of Human Rights First. “This confirms our concerns about growing violence and discrimination, and increased use of the anti-propaganda law. We renew our calls for the International Olympic Committee and the U.S. Olympic Committee to speak out publicly against these discriminatory laws.”
Smirnova is among the Russian LGBT advocates who took part in a Capitol Hill briefing in December on the Kremlin’s gay rights record. She also sat on a United Nations panel alongside retired tennis champion Martina Navratilova, former Washington Wizards center Jason Collins, South African activist Thandeka “Tumi” Mkhuma, intersex advocate Huda Viloria and U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic on Dec. 11 that commemorated the 65th anniversary of the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“We are sorry to learn of the detention of activists in Russia for making political statements,” Aaron Jensen, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department, told the Blade. “This is an example of the disturbing trend in the Russian Federation of legislation, prosecutions, and government actions aimed at suppressing dissent and groups that advocate for human rights and government accountability. The so-called LGBT ‘propaganda’ law is part of this trend.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) also criticized the arrests.
“No one should be arrested for protesting peacefully and exercising their God-given right to free speech. This is yet another sad example of the intolerance running rampant in Russia,” the Florida Republican told the Blade.
Putin told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos last month that those who protest the Kremlin’s LGBT rights record during the 2014 Winter Olympics will not face prosecution under the gay propaganda law. The interview took place a day before authorities detained a gay rights advocate who unfurled a rainbow flag as the Olympic torch relay passed through the city of Voronezh.
The International Olympic Committee has repeatedly said it has received assurances from Russian officials that gays and lesbians will not suffer discrimination during the games that will take place in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
“We aren’t banning anything, we aren’t rounding up anyone, we have no criminal punishment for such relations unlike many other countries,” said Putin during a Jan. 17 meeting with Olympic volunteers in Sochi. “We have a ban on propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia, I want to underline that, on propaganda among minors.”
Athlete Ally founder Hudson Taylor told the Washington Blade in an exclusive interview from Sochi earlier this week he had seen little evidence of LGBT advocacy in the Olympic host city ahead of the games.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday highlighted LGBT rights during a speech he gave during an IOC meeting in the Black Sea resort.
“We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people,” said Ban. “We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face.”
Ros-Lehtinen once again criticized the IOC for allowing Russia to host the games.
“It is fundamental that the IOC select countries that honor all the Fundamental Principles of the Olympic Charter, and that those countries reflect the spirit of freedom imbued in the charter,” the Florida Republican told the Blade. “I hope for a day where everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, will be able to express themselves in all spheres of society without fear of reprisal.”
Smirnova posted on her Facebook page shortly after the Olympic opening ceremony began in Sochi that authorities had released them from custody.
They face charges of participating in an illegal public assembly during their scheduled court hearing on Saturday.
“Everyone is feeling right and strong, and the support that we have is truly heartwarming,” wrote Smirnova.