LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Authorities in Russia may be monitoring emails and calls made by gay rights activists in an effort to prevent the staging of protests against anti-gay laws as the Winter Olympics get underway in Sochi, according to a rights activist.
Gay rights campaigners who had secretly planned a peaceful demonstration involving the release of balloons in St Petersburg subway stations were stopped by police on Wednesday before they could enter the stations, said Anastasia Smirnova, who represents several gay rights groups in Russia.
“Probably emails or phones are monitored by our (security) services. Obviously some activists are monitored but we didn’t know that it was being done on such a wide scale and that even such a peaceful action would be prevented from happening,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview from Moscow.
“It’s hard to know for sure but, judging from (the St Petersburg) action, it seems like (authorities) are trying to prevent any kind of public demonstration.”
Russian authorities were not immediately available for comment.
Russia, hosting a winter Games for the first time, has come under heavy criticism over a law banning the spread of gay propaganda among minors. President Vladimir Putin says the legislation is needed to protect young people. Critics say it fosters a climate of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned sexual discrimination and attacks on homosexuals in a speech to the International Olympic Committee in Sochi on Thursday which also drew attention to Russia's record on gay rights.
The outcry has threatened Putin's efforts to use the Games, which open on Friday, to show how far Russia has come since the Soviet era, when homosexuality was illegal.
Putin, who signed the law last summer, said that people of “non-traditional sexual orientation” would be welcome at the event. He was echoed on Thursday by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak who said that "We do not differentiate between people depending on their religion, or sexual relations or nationality."
However, Smirnova said some activists had been denied passes to the Olympics. She said there was anecdotal evidence to suggest the LGBT community in Russia had experienced a rise in violence and intimidation since the passing of the legislation.
“We don’t have data on violence against LGBT people on an everyday basis but I think it’s already quite illustrative that there are many, much more instances of organised violence against gay people and activists,” she said.
Smirnova said that vigilante groups such as the now infamous “Occupy Paedophilia” use the internet to lure young men who they suspect of being gay and then assault and harass them, film them and post the videos online, calling from more violence.
“Our government is doing nothing to even pretend it is protecting LGBT citizens,” she said.
Smirnova said the outcry that followed the promulgation of anti-gay legislation in Russia represents an “unprecedented case...of global mobilisation at such a high level around one country.”
However, she said that not enough was being done by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to challenge Russia’s stance on homosexuality, and argued that the IOC had not upheld its own charter.
In a statement, the IOC said it had received assurances from the Russian government that everyone would be welcome at the Sochi games, “regardless of their sexual orientation”.
“The IOC is clear that sport is a human right and should be available to all regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation as stated in the Olympic Charter,” the statement said.
“The Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media, and, of course, athletes. We would oppose in the strongest terms any move that would jeopardise this principle,” the statement added.
Smirnova said that while she had never been physically attacked, she had been subjected to threats and online harassment, as had many of her fellow activists.
She said her job required her to be active on social media, which had made her a target of homophobic groups which collect the personal data of the most high-profile activists and post photos with names on social networks, sometimes openly calling for violence.
“It’s quite frustrating...and it’s a bit scary,” Smirnova said. “Not because of the threats but because you never know, for example, with whom you’ll end up in the elevator or who will sit next to you on the bus.”