Gay equality has taken a dramatic step backwards in Russia as its parliament overwhelmingly approves a federal law that bans any public discussion or depiction of homosexuality.
Despite international condemnation, the bill banning the “propaganda” of “non-traditional sexual relations” was voted on twice by the lower house (the Duma) on Tuesday. It was approved almost unanimously by the legislators.
Human rights activists are under no illusion that the term “non-traditional sexual relations” refers to homosexuality.
The law is intended to “protect” minors from exposure to any and all information about homosexuality and is expected to further impact on the LGBT community’s ability to protest in public, which has been increasingly curtailed in recent years.
More than 20 gay rights protesters who demonstrated against the law by kissing each other outside the Duma earlier on Tuesday were arrested. They were also pelted with eggs and some were beaten and kicked by right-wing thugs.
The law could lead to the shutting down of LGBT rights groups in Russia as they will not be able to speak out or communicate their views in any public fora or medium – including festivals, performances, posters and pamphlets – or they face a fine of up to one million rubles (US$ 31,000).
Foreigners who fall foul of the law face up to 15 days in jail and expulsion from the country.
The bill must still be approved by the upper house of the Duma and be signed by President Putin; both seen as formalities in its adoption.
Russian human rights commissioner Vladimir Lukin told Interfax on Tuesday: “The main issue will be the administration of the law. Cruel and unwise administration could lead to human casualties and human tragedies.”
The bill comes in the wake of a wave of homophobic sentiment sweeping across the region. Last month, in separate incidents, three Russian men were murdered by members of the pubic in connection with their sexual orientation.
Leading Russian gay rights activist Nikolai Alekseev said that “Russia is isolating itself by criminalising homosexual relations. We have seen the tip of the iceberg. It cannot get worse. People are getting killed because they are gay. No one really cares in the government.”
A new poll of Russian attitudes towards homosexuality has shown a marked hardening in recent years. According to Interfax, 88% of Russians approve of banning the promotion of homosexuality. Forty two percent also believe that homosexuality should be a criminal offense (up from 19% in 2007).
British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who was beaten and arrested four times for participating in successive Moscow Gay Pride parades, from 2007 to 2011, said that the new law “is symptomatic of Putin’s increasing authoritarianism and his crackdown on civil society”.
He warned that the law “is likely to result in the purging of many books, films and plays from libraries, schools, theatres and cinemas, including many classic works of art and literature. It is one of the harshest laws against gay freedom of expression anywhere in the world”.
Alekseev revealed on Tuesday that he intends to lodge a case against Russian legislators with the International Criminal Court in Holland on the basis that the law is an incitement to genocide against LGBT people.
On Facebook he wrote: “My dear friends, get ready that I might soon be arrested for a very long time by President Putin’s regime for applying against him in the Hague Criminal Tribunal. The application for genocide will be sent to the Hague this week.”