Russia′s Duma muzzles gays and lesbians | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.06.2013
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Russia's Duma muzzles gays and lesbians

The parliament has passed a ban on "homosexual propaganda" that introduces heavy punishment for public statements about "non-traditional sexual relations."

Oleg S. probably knew his murderers. The deputy director of a regional airport on the Kamchatka peninsula in the far east of Russia had apparently planned to meet an acquaintance when he was lured into an ambush, where he was attacked and died of multiple stab wounds. The Russian police say that the motive for the murder is assumed to have been the 38-year-old's "non-traditional sexual orientation."

A few weeks earlier there was a similar incident in Volgograd, where a 23-year-old died in a particularly brutal attack. Gay rights activists like Nikolai Alexeyev from Moscow are sounding the alarm. They warn that the Russian government bears some of the responsibility for the recent murders, because its policies are inflaming negative attitudes towards homosexuals. The ban on so-called "homosexual propaganda" is, they say, yet another example.

A general view of the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament (photo: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin)

The Duma voted in favor of the "propaganda" ban

On Tuesday (11.06.2013), the Russian lower house of parliament, the Duma, passed a national law introducing punishments for any public expression of so-called "non-traditional sexual relations" that could be seen by minors. Supporters of the law, like Yelena Mizulina, who chairs the lower house's committee on family issues, say it is intended to protect children and young people.

The text of the law will make it an offence to present relationships between two people of the same sex as being somehow attractive, or to communicate to Russian children and young people that love between two women or two men is "just as socially valuable" as that between a man and a woman.

Heavy fines and possible arrest

The fines outlined in the draft law vary from 100 euros ($133) for private individuals to more than 23,000 euros for companies or organizations. If the "propaganda" is spread via the media, the fines can be 10 or 20 times higher. For example, if someone writes in a blog that homosexual love is okay, he or she risks being fined up to 2,000 euros in Russia. Companies and organizations would pay a far higher price and can even be closed down for up to 90 days.

Foreigners in Russia can also be punished: they must reckon with similar punishments to those affecting Russian citizens. On top of the fines, they can be arrested for up to 15 days and then expelled from the country.

For about a year now, gays and lesbians have been coming under increasing pressure from the Russian authorities. Bans on "homosexual propaganda" have been issued in several regions of the country, including the second-largest city, St Petersburg. More and more often, gays and lesbians have been prohibited from marching and demonstrating for their rights. On Tuesday the police arrested some 24 people in front of the parliament in Moscow for protesting against the law.

Homophobia on the rise

A gay rights activist holds a placard during a protest outside the Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament (photo: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin)

Russia's gay and lesbian activists push for their rights

Surveys show that Russian society now increasingly rejects homosexuality. Almost half the population (47 percent) approves of limiting the rights of gays and lesbians, according to a poll by the independent Moscow institute the Levada Center in April 2013 - an increase of 7 percent points to the previous year. Three-quarters of all those questioned (73 percent) believed that the state should prohibit homosexuals from being permitted to express their sexuality openly.

Russian president Vladimir Putin uses opinion polls like these to justify his policies. His message is that the tough new law is simply a reflection of Russian society. "I think our legislation is fairly liberal," said Putin at a joint summit with the European Union at the beginning of June in 2012 in Ekaterinburg. According to the President, there is no discrimination against gays and lesbians in Russia.

The EU sees this differently. It appealed to Russia not to pass the controversial "homosexual propaganda" law. The Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, as well as the human rights organization Amnesty International were also very critical. Even the Chairman of Putin's Presidential Council on Human Rights, Mikhail Fedotov, believes that the law is unnecessary.

Punishment for Elton John?

But Russia appears unimpressed by all the international criticism. The political campaign against homosexuals occasionally enters the realms of the bizarre. The American pop divas Madonna and Lady Gaga were strongly criticized for the permissive nature of their performances at concerts in St Petersburg. A state-sponsored commission was called on to investigate. It concluded that the concerts should not have been advertised for people under the age of 18.

When the British pop singer Elton John performs in the southern Russian town of Krasnodar in July, the controversial law may already have come into force. Elton John makes no secret of his homosexuality. It is unlikely that he will be prosecuted; but some local politicians have, in all seriousness, called upon the singer to swap his "garish stage outfit for a ceremonial Cossack uniform."

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