A gay couple has unexpectedly landed in hot water with Russian authorities after attempting to pay tribute to the victims of a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Feliks Glyukman and Islam Abdullabekov were detained by police when they showed up at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on June 13 with flowers, candles, and a large sign saying "Love wins."
If charged, they face up to 10 days behind bars and a minimum fine of 20,000 rubles ($303) for allegedly holding an unsanctioned picket.
"I think it’s a disgrace, to put it mildly," Glyukman, a 24-year-old art critic, told RFE/RL.
Glyukman said he and Abdullabekov, a 21-year-old social-media manager, came to the makeshift memorial outside the embassy to express their condolences, not rally for gay rights.
"We took our placard out of a bag and walked up to the memorial, we wanted to put it on the ground along with flowers and candles," he said. "But when we put the placard down a police officer came up, picked it up, and tried to return it to me. One of his colleagues, a young woman, joined him. When we refused to leave, they grabbed us by the arm and took us to their vehicle."
Footage of the detention captured by correspondent from RFE/RL’s Russian Service shows the young men getting into a police car.
WATCH: Men Arrested In Moscow After Orlando Tribute
Glyukman said they were then taken to a police station, questioned, and locked up. He said police officers made several references to their sexual orientation and accused them of holding a picket without official permission.
They were released three hours later after their lawyer, Sergei Panchenko, intervened.
Panchenko said their detention was illegal and dismissed the accusations leveled against the pair as unfounded. "There was no picket, no rally, no protest," he said. "They didn’t exhibit this sign, they didn’t brandish it or stand with it. They just came and laid it on the ground."
Mumin Shakirov, one of the RFE/RL journalists who witnessed the incident, said police had been under persistent pressure from several antigay activists to remove LGBT symbols from the memorial.
"Before this, the atmosphere was already tense due to presence of [Russian] Orthodox activists," he said. "There were three of them, they were demanding that the rainbow flag that lay among the flowers be removed."
Although Glyukman and Abdullabekov have not been charged under the so-called gay "propaganda" law, their detention has raised suspicion that police sought to preempt a potential protest by members of Russia's beleaguered lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
A controversial law signed by President Vladimir Putin in 2013 bans the dissemination of "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors. Activists say its adoption has sparked a rise in violence and harassment of LGBT people across the country.
"These actions do not simply target citizens, they directly target the LGBT community," Panchenko said. "We hope that authorities will close this shameful case."
Along with expressions of grief, the Orlando shooting has also generated a barrage of homophobic comments in Russia.
On June 12, a gunman killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in the Florida city in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.