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Russian court dissolves LGBTQ rights group

Sphere provided legal, psychological assistance across country



Igor Kochetkov, center with Pride flag, being detained by police in St. Petersburg during an LGBTQ and human rights protest in 2018. (Photo by Alexander Lvovich Gorshkov/Facebook)

Last week the Kuibyshevsky District Court in St. Petersburg ordered that Charitable Foundation Sphere be liquidated.

In February, Russia’s Justice Ministry filed a lawsuit seeking to “liquidate” [disband and dissolve] Sphere Foundation, the legal entity under which the Russian LGBT Network operates, arguing the group’s activities run contrary to “traditional values.”

On April 21, Judge Tatiana Kuzovkina ruled in favor 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, the 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.” He then added; “The work continues. Their hands are dirty but too short to ban us.”

Tanya Lokshina, the associate director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division, 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 Justice Ministry began an unscheduled audit of the foundation. In the course of the audit, Sphere provided the Justice Ministry 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 2021, the Justice Ministry believes that gross violations were committed in the activities of the fund. Among the claims of the Justice Ministry 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 Justice Ministry’s Main Department on Feb. 4, 2022, following an unscheduled inspection. On Feb. 9, 2022, Kuibyshev Court Judge Irina Vorobyova left the claim for the liquidation of the Sphere Foundation 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 Justice Ministry — 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 21.

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 2021, the registers of “foreign agents” got longer with the inclusion of 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 Justice Ministry 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 2021 five LGBT activists found themselves recognized as ‘media-foreign agents’ by the Justice Ministry.

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 Caucasuses, 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 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. 

The Justice Ministry on April 8 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 Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth. “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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Russia extends Brittney Griner detention for another month

WNBA star taken into custody at Moscow airport in February



Brittney Griner (Photo by Lorie Shaull, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A Russian court on Friday extended WNBA star Brittney Griner’s detention for another month.

Griner — a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife — was taken into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Russian officials said customs inspectors found hashish oil in her luggage.

Griner is among the WNBA players who play in Russia during the league’s off-season.

The State Department earlier this month determined Russia “wrongfully detained” Griner. The National Black Justice Coalition is among the groups that have also criticized Russia over Griner’s detention.

Griner on Friday appeared in court in the Moscow suburb of Khimki. Griner’s lawyer, Alexander Boikov, told the Associated Press that her trial could begin soon.

Griner faces up to 10 years in prison.

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Russian court fines TikTok and Instagram for ‘gay propaganda’

Moscow court sanctioned social media platforms



Tagansky Court of Moscow (Photo courtesy of government/courts of the City of Moscow)

The Tagansky Court of Moscow ruled Tuesday that social media platforms Instagram and TikTok were guilty of violating Russia’s law that bans discussions or information regarding LGBTQ people or community known as the “Gay Propaganda Law.”

In the case against TikTok, Judge Timur Vakhrameev found TikTok guilty under Part 2 of Article 13.41 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation (“Non-deletion by the site owner of information if the obligation to delete is provided for by the legislation of the Russian Federation”) for violating the tenets of the “Gay Propaganda Law” requiring deletion of the offending materials.

Vakhrameev fined the social network 2 million rubles, which is roughly equivalent to $27,000.

In another case the court found that Meta, parent company of Instagram had also violated “Part 2 of Article 13.41,” and imposed a fine of 4 million rubles, which is roughly equivalent to $54,000, for not deleting materials on Instagram promoting “non-traditional sexual values to minors.”

Since the start of the war with Ukraine, the Russian government’s Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, abbreviated as Roskomnadzor, has blocked Facebook, Instagram and TikTok from operating in the country.

Deputy Head of Roskomnadzor Vadim Subbotin told Russian media outlet that his agency also has worked with the courts to fine Google-owned YouTube.

“In total, the court on the claims of Roskomnadzor imposed fines for not removing prohibited content on YouTube video hosting, the amount of which already exceeds 7 billion rubles,” he said.

Subbotin added that “false information” about the activities of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine is being spread on social networks. He said that Roskomnadzor is taking appropriate response measures.

“In response to this, we are taking measures aimed at protecting our citizens and the interests of our country in the information space. Roskomnadzor has blocked more than 85,000 of this kind of materials, including entire resources that systematically generate such content, ”said the deputy head of the department.

Earlier, according to Brand Analytics, from Feb. 24-April 20, the number of active Russian-speaking authors on YouTube decreased by 21 percent .

The Tagansky Court of Moscow fined Google 7 million rubles on charges of distributing YouTube videos calling for terrorist attacks in Russia the outlet reported that the Prosecutor General’s Office said.

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Last major independent Russia news outlet shuts down

Novaya Gazeta covered Chechnya anti-LGBTQ crackdown



Moscow offices of Novaya Gazeta (Screenshot/AFP YouTube)

The last major independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, announced Monday that it was shutting down after receiving a new notice from Roskomnadzor, the Russian media telecommunications regulator threatening to shut it down or revoke its license.

The Russian federal agency stated that the news outlet was in violation of Russia’s new wartime censorship law over the coverage of the warfare being conducted in Ukraine.

Novaya Gazeta’s Nobel prize winning editor-in-chief Dmitri A. Muratov posted online that he “has decided to suspend publications” of the newspaper on the web and on paper “until the end of the special operation on the territory of Ukraine.”

Muratov’s decision is leaving Russia without any major media outlets critical of the Kremlin as it wages war in Ukraine.

Novaya Gazeta in the post-Soviet Putin-era Russia has fearlessly covered issues, publishing its investigations into corruption within the Russian Federation’s government, the Wagner mercenaries, described as a private military company, a network of mercenaries, or a de facto private army of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the persecution of LGBTQ people, in particular gay men, in Chechnya.

There are numerous journalists from Novaya Gazeta who have been murdered since 2000 following their investigations including Anastasia Baburova, Yuri Shchekochikhin and Anna Politkovskaja, known mainly for her reports on the Second Chechen War and for her harsh criticism against the Russian federal government.

Elena Kostyuchenko, interviewed four years ago by Washington Blade International Editor Michael K. Lavers, broke the story in Novaya Gazeta over the anti-gay purge by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, an ally to the Russian president.

Elena Kostyuchenko is a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper.
(Photo by Yulia Balashova)

Kostyuchenko acknowledged she and her colleagues received death threats after they began to report on the anti-gay crackdown in Chechnya. Kadyrov described Novaya Gazeta reporters as “enemies of our faith and our homeland” in a speech he delivered at the main mosque in the Chechen capital of Grozny shortly after news of the crackdown broke. Novaya Gazeta in a statement said 15,000 people had gathered at the mosque for the speech.

“I jumped on the story just to share the danger with my colleagues,” Kostyuchenko told the Blade. “It’s how we’re doing things at Novaya. If some topic’s extremely dangerous, we try to involve as many journalists as we can to spread the danger.”

Kostyuchenko throughout the interview with the Blade was highly critical of Putin over LGBTQ rights and a host of other issues that include corruption and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Muratov announced he will auction the Nobel medal received last fall and will donate the proceeds to the Fund for Ukrainian Refugees. At the same time, he called for an immediate ceasefire, the exchange of prisoners, the bodies of killed soldiers and the opening of humanitarian corridors from the besieged Ukrainian cities.

“What we can do: share with refugees, injured people and children in urgent need of care what is dear to us and that is of value to others,” he wrote on the newspaper’s website in an ad in Russian, English and Ukrainian.

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