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St. Petersburg vs. gays

March 3, 2012

St. Petersburg's city parliament passed a controversial new law against "homosexual propaganda" this week. Critics say the legislation violates the European Human Rights Convention.

The St. Petersburg gay community
Image: DW

The local parliament in Russia's second largest city, St. Petersburg, passed a controversial law banning what it called "homosexual propaganda" on Wednesday, making it illegal to publicly distribute material about homo-, bi- and transsexuality.

The new legislation, justified as an attempt to protect minors, imposes fines on anyone who publishes material deemed as promoting gay culture. Authorities can now prosecute people who publish flyers informing schoolchildren about homosexuality, and can also ban calls for participation in gay parades. Similar laws have been passed in two other Russian cities before.

The State Duma in St. Petersburg
The law passed by St. Petersburg's local parliament is not the first of its kindImage: AP

Under the new law, private citizens publishing the "propaganda" would be fined 130 euros ($170), while public officials pay a higher fine of 1,300 euros. Legal entities such as associations and other organizations can be fined up to 13,000 euros.

The law also bans "public actions aimed at the propaganda/promotion of pedophilia" for which a fine of up to 26,000 euros can be imposed.

Interpretation of 'propaganda'

Critics have condemned the law for leaving the interpretation of "propaganda" entirely to the authorities. One of the law's initiators, Vitaly Milonov of the ruling United Russia party, rejected accusations of homophobia, saying it was only intended to protect minors. He and other initiators are now pushing for a national law.

The law was supported by Vladimir Dmitriev, of the local communist party. "Everything that is against the Russian nation," or that promotes the "destruction of our culture and spirituality of our people should be kicked out of the country," he told Deutsche Welle.

But opposition party Yabloko strongly opposes the new law. Yabloko parliamentary leader Boris Vishnevsky considers it unconstitutional, as it imposes "fines on something that isn't criminal."

Vishnevsky said that the Russian constitution forbids punishing anyone for their sexual orientation, because this is considered part of a citizen's private life.

Attack on freedom of speech

But Dmitrij Dubrovsky of St. Petersburg State University says that the Russian constitutional court set the precedent in January 2010, when it ruled that a similar law in the city of Ryazan was valid.

Dmitrij Dubrovsky
Dubrovsky described the law as an attack on the freedom of speechImage: DW

"People were successfully prosecuted for slogans such as 'homosexuality is normal' and 'I'm proud of my homosexuality,' which they had written on banners," Dubrovsky told DW.

But he added that the St. Petersburg law and its equivalents in other Russian cities violate the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

"What has been deemed 'propaganda' in those laws is actually an attack on the freedom of speech, and the right of assembly and demonstration," said Dubrovsky. He also criticized the law for treating homosexuality and pedophilia as equally criminal.

That's also a concern for Germany's Human Rights Commissioner Markus Löning. "It's definitely not right," he told DW. "It goes without saying that children need to be protected, but on the other hand it's unacceptable that people are discriminated because of their sexual identity."

Markus Löning
"It's unacceptable that people are discriminated because of their sexual identity," Löning saidImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"This law is in conflict with international commitments Russia has agreed to, for example its membership of the Council of Europe," he said.

Author: Vladimir Isotov, Markian Ostaptschuk / sst
Editor: Ben Knight