February 8, 2014 | by Michael K. Lavers
LGBT rights advocates recount Moscow arrests

Red Square, Russia, Moscow, Kremlin, gay news, Washington Blade

Police on Feb. 7 arrested Elena Kostynchenko and nine other LGBT rights advocates in Moscow’s Red Square. (Photo by YAB994 via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the 10 LGBT rights advocates who was arrested in the Russian capital just before the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics told the Washington Blade on Saturday that police officers beat and threatened to sexually assault them while in custody.

Elena Kostynchenko said during a telephone interview from Moscow that she and the other activists were arrested when they began singing the Russian national anthem in Red Square. The group that included Ulrika Westerlund and another member of the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights held rainbow and Russian flags during the protest.

Kostynchenko told the Blade the officers handcuffed some of activists to a cage in which they placed her and the other protesters once they brought them to a nearby police station.

She said authorities beat one of them and choked another. Kostynchenko told the Blade that officers asked her and another female activist to go upstairs and perform oral sex on them – she noted they also made lewd comments about her body.

Kostynchenko further alleges an officer also spit in her face.

“They didn’t care about anything,” she said.

Westerlund told the Blade on Saturday she and her Swedish colleague were released about an hour after their arrest.

“Me and the other Swedish person didn’t have any especially bad treatment, but the Russians did,” she said.

Kostynchenko said the activists’ lawyer was not allowed into the police station. She added officers refused to give her their names when she told them she wanted to file a complaint against them.

“They said just get out of here,” she told the Blade.

All of the Russian LGBT rights activists have been released from custody. Kostynchenko told the Blade a local hospital treated four of them after they left the police station.

“[The police] didn’t care at all about what can happen to them later,” she said.

Authorities arrested Kostynchenko and the nine other advocates in Moscow hours after police in St. Petersburg took Anastasia Smirnova and three other LGBT rights activists into custody after they tried to march across a bridge holding a banner in support of the campaign that supports the inclusion of sexual orientation in the Olympic charter’s non-discrimination clause.

The St. Petersburg activists face charges of participating in an illegal public assembly. They are scheduled to appear in court on Feb. 17.

Smirnova told the Blade on Saturday that she and the three other activists faced additional harassment after their release. She said they spent three hours “in conversations with road police and other authorities” before they finally retrieved their car that had been towed.

Smirnova referenced an old Russian saying that roughly translates into English as “to bring the mess out from the house” as she discussed the Feb. 7 arrests in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“It basically conveys the idea that whatever bad is happening, it is a ‘family’ thing and should be dealt with privately,” she told the Blade. “This is what the ill logic behind the wave of harsh detentions on Feb. 7 is.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos last month those who protest his government’s LGBT rights record during the Olympics will not face prosecution under the country’s controversial law that bans gay propaganda to minors. The International Olympic Committee has repeatedly said it has received assurances from the Kremlin that gays and lesbians will not suffer discrimination during the games that are taking place in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

Smirnova said she feels the Russian government is “preoccupied with making impressions, and will stop at no end to not let any ‘mess’ out from the house.”

“What they strangely fail to understand is that stifling critics – or anyone who has opinions – is revealing the reality in a much more powerful way than any protest demonstration,” she said.

The International Olympic Committee did not return the Blade’s request for comment on the arrests, but IOC Head of Media Relations Emmanuelle Moreau defended them in a statement to BuzzFeed.

“We understand that the protesters were quickly released,” said Moreau. “As in many countries in the world, in Russia, you need permission before staging a protest. We understand this was the reason that they were temporarily detained.”

The Blade’s attempts to seek comment from the Russian government were not successful.

“I think it’s because we’re gays,” said Kostynchenko as she discussed the Moscow arrests. “It’s because we’re like second-class citizens now in Russia, officially by law.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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