Despite receiving municipal permission to rally, LGBT demonstrators at a National Coming Out Day protest in Moscow were dragged to police cars by plainclothes officers less than an hour after they gathered Sunday, reports the Washington Blade.
“They were criminal policemen, who watched the rally and waited for the moment to detain the participants,” Nikolai Baev, one of the protesters detained, told the Blade. “This is a common practice in Putin’s country; a lot of police agents watch all rallies in Moscow.”
Organizers said they had all of the necessary permits to hold the demonstration. But the arresting agents told them the protest was still illegal.
Russia's nationwide ban on so-called gay propaganda, signed into law by President Vladimir Putin last year, criminalizes any positive discussion of LGBT people, identities, or issues in forums that might be accessible to minors. In practice, the law has given police broad license to interpret almost any mention of being LGBT — whether uttered, printed, or signified by waving a rainbow flag — as just cause to arrest LGBT people. It's just one sign in an increasingly harsh crackdown on individual freedoms and basic rights for LGBT Russians.
When Baev and his follow protesters realized that they were about to be arrested, they tried to defuse the situation by taking down Pride flags and a banner. That didn't work.
“Police officers asked the organizer to get into the [police] car,” Dima Svetliy, another protester who was arrested, told the Blade. “We understood that we were now screwed.”
It wasn't long before officers stopped asking and started dragging protesters into their cars.
“Policemen started to drag people on the ground to police cars,” Baev told the Blade. Those detained were charged with disobeying officers and released after three hours in jail, according to the paper.
The scene this weekend was just the latest incident in what appears to be a trend leading the technically democratic society down a path that looks eerily reminiscent of the 1970s in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Last week Putin's ombudsman for children's rights terminated a long-running student exchange program after it was revealed that American officials are helping a 17-year-old gay Russian boy seek asylum in the U.S.
Although initial reports only speculated about the cause behind the teenager's request to stay in the U.S. and that petition's impact on Russia's participation in the Future Leaders Exchange program, The New York Times reports that multiple sources have now confirmed that Russia did indeed end its decades-long participation in FLEX as a result of the young man seeking asylum.
Saying she was "shocked" that an anonymous U.S. official had told the Times that Russia's pullout from the FLEX program centered on her client's asylum application, the attorney representing the Russian teen nonetheless confirmed to Radio Free Europe that that was indeed the case.
"I think it does at least allow me now to say that this is about our client and our client’s identity and our client’s fear of returning to Russia," Susan Reed, a supervising attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "It’s not about anybody else.”
Reed declined to give the boy's name, information about with whom he is now living, or any further details about the case. However, she noted that Russian diplomats have already been providing misinformation to the media, including claims the Russian boy had been assigned two attorneys of "nontraditional sexual orientations," which is the language used to describe LGBT people in the aforementioned law banning "gay propaganda." For the record, Reed told the Times that she is married to a man, has two children, and is Roman Catholic.
American officials say the boy, who had been living with a "traditional family" during his participation in the exchange program, is now with a foster family while his application for asylum is being considered. Multiple media reports claim the youth had befriended a gay couple he met at church in Michigan.
Russian officials believe the boy is living with that couple, whose identity has not been made public. According to the Times, Russian news agency TASS quoted Russian officials falsely claiming that it is "not illegal" for adults to have sex with 16-year-olds in the U.S.
"A child with a mother in Russia was illegally put up for adoption and the boy was handed over to a homosexual American couple," Pavel A. Astakhov, Russia's presidential ombudsman for children's rights, told TASS. "The boy is healthy and comes from a good family, so it’s not clear under what arguments the United States is operating."
Neither U.S. officials nor the boy's attorney would say whether the foster family currently housing the teen is headed by same-sex partners or a single person who may be LGBT.
"The sexual orientation of that foster family is irrelevant," Reed told The New York Times.
Meanwhile, the case is being seen as one more way Russia is shuttering itself from the outside world.
"They have taken this one case and have used it to shut down a program that has historically been very successful," Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former ambassador to Ukraine, told the Times. "The big losers are going to be the Russian kids who can’t come and spend a year in an American high school. There seems to be a trend to try to separate Russia from the rest of the world."
Russia's withdrawal from the FLEX program reportedly opened hundreds of new slots for Ukrainian students to study in the U.S.
Watch as National Coming Out Day protesters get nabbed by plainclothes officers in Moscow: