WASHINGTON -- The lawyer for a Russian teenager who remained in the United States after completing a U.S.-Russian exchange program says her client is seeking political asylum due to fears of persecution in Russia because he is gay.
“Our client is afraid of returning to Russia because Russia persecutes gay people. That’s what this is about,” Susan Reed, an attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, told RFE/RL on October 7.
The boy lived with an American family and attended a U.S. high school in 2012-13 as part of the decades-old Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX).
But he did not return to his home country at the conclusion of the exchange as required by the program. His decision to remain in the United States emerged last week when Russia cited the case in its decision to suspend its participation in FLEX.
Moscow’s subsequent explanations of the move, conveyed through state-controlled Russian media and Twitter, were rife with lurid insinuation that the boy had been manipulated by homosexual adults during his time in the United States.
Russia's child-protection ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, told Russia's TASS state news agency that "a U.S. homosexual couple" had illegally established "guardianship" over a boy whose mother remains in Russia.
A TASS report based on sources in the Russian Embassy in Washington said that Russian diplomats clarified that in Michigan, where the boy attended high school, “like in many other states, it is not illegal to have sexual relations with a 16-year-old adolescent and is not considered the basis for criminal prosecution against those who seduce minors.”
Reed told RFE/RL that the statements and reports from Russian officials seem to suggest “that there’s some person or some people whose sexual orientation is relevant. And that’s just not the case.”
“There’s no adoption, there’s no untoward behavior,” she said. “He met many caring adults, both gay and straight in the U.S., and he decided to stay here because he was afraid to go home.”
Critics say the Kremlin is fostering a menacing atmosphere for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Russia, where antipathy toward homosexuals continues to run deep, according to public opinion polls in recent years.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last year enacted a controversial law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships” among minors. Western governments and rights groups decried it as discriminatory toward gays, while Putin and other Russian officials claimed the legislation was aimed at protecting children and encouraging Russia’s birth rate.
Violent antigay militant groups in Russia have in recent years also embarked on a brutal guerrilla campaign in which they use the Internet to lure homosexuals into meeting up with the promise of a romantic encounter.
Instead, the victims are assaulted, humiliated and forced to disclose their personal information in videos that the attackers then distribute online.
Citing privacy concerns, Reed had previously refused to confirm publicly that he applied for political asylum based on his sexual orientation.
She said, however, that she decided to discuss the matter publicly after an October 4 “New York Times” report that cited an unidentified U.S. official as confirming that the boy had applied for political asylum based on his sexual orientation.
Reed called it “shocking” that a U.S. official would speak to the media about an asylum-seeker’s case or the basis for the application.
“But 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. It’s not about anybody else,” she told RFE/RL.
She declined to give further details about her client’s asylum application.
Russia's pullout will open more places for students from Ukraine and other nations in the government-sponsored program, which provides scholarships to high school students from 10 former Soviet republics to study in the United States for a full academic year.
The U.S. State Department's top official for European and Eurasian affairs, Victoria Nuland, said she is saddened by Russia's decision "to deny their own citizens the opportunity to study in the United States" and hopes Russia's participation will be restored "in the not-too-distant future."
"In the meantime, we will have more than 100 extra slots for Ukrainians," she said in a speech to students in Kyiv on October 7.
Those slots will bring the number available to Ukrainians to more than 300.
The rest of the nearly 240 slots currently occupied by Russians will go to Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia, according to "The New York Times."