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'Not A Sin To Thrash Gays': As Russian Meme Convictions Mount, Police Shrug At Homophobic Slurs

Russian police say sexual minorities are not a group protected under hate-speech laws.
Russian police say sexual minorities are not a group protected under hate-speech laws.

Internet users in Russia have faced criminal hate-speech charges for mocking religion on social media, including for likening the Jon Snow character from Game Of Thrones to Jesus Christ.

But when a Russian LGBT activist complained to police about online comments saying "faggots should be pummeled" or "snuffed out," they said no laws were broken -- and that sexual minorities are not a group protected under hate-speech laws.

"The texts examined are not aimed at forming among readers a negative attitude toward individuals or a group of individuals singled out by nationality, race, religion, or social affiliation," reads one of the three police responses to complaints filed by Anna Plyusnina, a lawyer with the LGBT Resource Center in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

"The comments in question express a negative attitude toward homosexuals," police continued in the response, a copy of which was obtained by RFE/RL.

Plyusnina's decision to go public this week with the responses by regional police comes amid heightened national attention in Russia to criminal prosecutions over online content -- including satirical memes -- that authorities deem hate speech or insulting to religion.

Russia has undertaken a broad crackdown on online speech in recent years that critics say is aimed at stifling dissenting views and is abused by authorities to bolster conviction rates.

A spate of recent cases in the Siberian region of Altai -- including a 19-year-old facing up to five years in prison for the Jon-Snow-as-Jesus meme -- has triggered debate about the need to reform hate-speech laws.

LGBT activists, Western governments, and rights watchdogs have also warned of an increasingly repressive atmosphere for sexual minorities in Russia, including a 2013 law signed by President Vladimir Putin that bans "promoting" among minors "nontraditional sexual relations."

'Not A Social Group'

Plyusnina, who first revealed her story to the Yekaterniburg-based news site, says that she decided to file formal complaints in March after local news portals refused to delete homophobic comments -- some involving violent imagery -- posted under articles about LGBT issues.

"We thought, 'This system isn't working.' That's when we went to police in hopes that such comments would be deleted," she tells RFE/RL in a telephone interview.

Anna Plyusnina, a lawyer for the LGBT Resource Center in Yekaterinburg
Anna Plyusnina, a lawyer for the LGBT Resource Center in Yekaterinburg

The complaints eventually landed on the desk of the counterextremism department of the regional Interior Ministry, which last month sent the responses to Plyusnina's three complaints.

One response cites an expert analysis as conceding that the comments feature "rude, profane, insulting" language about gay men and "discuss violent actions against them" -- including one reading, "It's not a sin to thrash gays."

But police concluded that the targets of the abuse are not covered under criminal statutes used to prosecute online speech.

Under Russian law, someone can be sentenced to five years in prison for public actions -- including Internet posts -- aimed at "stoking hatred" or demeaning people based on "gender, race, nationality, language, heritage, attitude toward religion, or affiliation with a social group."

"The police said LGBT individuals are not a social group, and for that reason you can't stoke hatred against them," Plyusnina says.

Aleksandr Verkhovksy, head of the Moscow-based Sova Center, which tracks the use and abuse of antiextremism laws in Russia, tells RFE/RL that it's "typical" for the authorities not to recognize sexual minorities as a "social group" under hate-speech protections.

The lack of a clear definition for the term under Russian law means that "arbitrariness is inevitable," Verkhovsky says. "And prejudice here, of course, plays a role."

Insults And Threats

The Sverdlovsk regional branch of the Interior Ministry, which processed Plyusnina's complaint, did not immediately respond to RFE/RL's request for comment on the matter.

A spokesman for the branch, Valery Gorelykh, told that because the counterextremism department does not have linguistics and psychology experts, it outsourced the analysis of the comments flagged by Plyusnina to experts affiliated with the regional Justice Ministry branch.

In a regular review of Russia's record in May by the UN's Human Rights Council, the United States and numerous European countries expressed concerns about discrimination and violence against sexual minorities in Russia -- including an alleged campaign of torture against gay men in Chechnya.

Putin and the Russian government have repeatedly rejected accusations that it is fostering an atmosphere of hate and discrimination against sexual minorities.

Plyusnina says she and her colleagues have decided not to pursue the homophobic comments with authorities further, noting the recent prominent Russian criminal cases involving alleged hate speech posted online.

"Personally, I don't think we need to put someone in prison over a repost," Plyusnina says. She says the main problem is that websites aren't deleting overtly homophobic comments.

"I'm not sure such comments could really incite someone to commit physical violence against LGBT individuals, but at the very least it contributes to a very negative psychological climate for the LGBT community," she says.

"The insults and threats -- there are more and more of them," Plyusnina adds.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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