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Under Threat in Russia, Some Russian Gays Look To Europe For Asylum

"Pavel," a gay Russian refugee in Berlin
"Pavel," a gay Russian refugee in Berlin
BERLIN -- Pavel had been openly gay for 10 years before he left his native Novosibirsk last year.

But when the 27-year-old Russian doctor, who now goes by Pavel instead of his given name to protect his family's privacy, arrived in Germany to ask for asylum in April 2013, he knew he needed to get back in the closet. Among conservative Afghans and Chechens in the asylum dormitory in the northern city of Kiel, Pavel was certain he was the only one whose request to stay in Europe was based on sexual orientation.

"If anyone at the center had found out, I would have gathered my belongings and left," he says.

Activists and friends advised Pavel to seek other avenues to leave Russia. Asylum seekers can spend years waiting for a decision, and there were no known cases of gay Russians being granted refugee status in Germany.

Last fall, Pavel became the first.

Although there is little in the way of official statistics, activists say an increasingly antigay environment, backed by legislation prohibiting gay "propaganda" -- which effectively bans public shows of affection among same-sex couples or the promotion of gay rights -- has caused interest in asylum among Russia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community to rise sharply.

A ruling in November by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which said gays could not be advised to be more discreet in their home countries as an alternative to asylum, has given new impetus to asylum seekers from gay and lesbian communities.

Regina Elsner, an activist with Quarteera, an NGO that provides support for gay Russians in Germany and helped Pavel find a lawyer, says her organization previously received requests for information about asylum from Russians abroad about once every two months.

Now, she says, the requests come two to three times a week.

Still, despite November’s ruling, whether the law grants Russians a statutory right to asylum in Europe is murky.

The court’s ruling, which was brought about by three gay men from countries in Africa with much harsher rules, applies to those whose sexual orientation may realistically result in criminal prosecution at home.

In Russia, those found guilty of propagating "nontraditional sexual relations" can be punished by a fine of up to 200,000 rubles ($6,060). Several activists have been detained and fined after protests, but criminal prosecution under the law, which Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law in June, is so far unlikely.

Joel Le Deroff, who works on asylum issues at the Brussels-based International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), says the ruling says little on threats to gays outside of official actions by state authorities.

"It basically said that to be sure that there was persecution, you have to find that you have criminal sanctions and that those sanctions are actually applied in practice," Le Deroff says.

In Russia, activists say, it is not the law itself but the message it sends that has spread fear through the LGBT community.

Last summer, a string of videos of gay men being violently abused and humiliated spread online. Many appeared to be the work of vigilante groups associated with an "Occupy Pedophilia" movement.

Videos have included the assailants stripping men naked, pouring urine on them and attempting to force victims to perform sexual acts on found objects like glass bottles. The group leaders do not differentiate between homosexuality and pedophilia and the targets are usually forced to "out" themselves as homosexuals by providing their full names and home addresses.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented the abuses:​

But rights workers say extremist brutality has been implicitly encouraged by mainstream propagation of the notion that an LGBT lifestyle threatens Russian society. In a nationally televised broadcast, a well-known TV host recommended burning or burying the hearts of gays after they die, and the actor who plays the lead role in a wildly popular Russian sitcom said gays should be burned alive "in ovens" (see video below).

Bulat Barantayev, an LGBT activist in Novosibirsk, who, like Elsner, says talk of leaving Russia has grown within the gay community, says vigilante groups now have tacit approval to lash out at gays and lesbians.

Barantayev tells of a friend who he says was recently lured into a fake blind date and was attacked by 10 men. Police stopped the attack, but none of the assailants faced charges.

"The main thing is that all those homophobic groups, they received this message from the state, from the authorities, that their activities are at least on the inside, the whole policy of the state," Barantayev says.

Pavel, the Russian refugee in Berlin, says it was this combination -- state sanctioning of intolerance with the threat of violence -- that prompted him to leave in April after a decade out of the closet.

"When people ask me, 'Is there or isn't there homophobia in Russia?' I say no, there's no homophobia -- there's 'moronification' and a type of national fear and hatred."

He adds: "For me, it isn't enough to just live with my partner in the dark. I want a family -- a normal family. I want kids -- it doesn't matter to me if they're biological or adopted. I want normal freedom. where no one stares suspiciously at me, where people don't shout nasty things at me."

Germany saw some 15,000 asylum applicants from Russia last year, mostly from the troubled North Caucasus region. While 98 percent have either been rejected or are still in processing, Pavel's petition was accepted within five months -- unusually fast in a country where asylum seekers can spend several years in limbo.

Tall and blonde and sporting a gray hoodie with rabbit ears on top, Pavel, who does not speak German, says since he left the asylum center he has felt more at home in Berlin then he ever did in Novosibirsk.

Analysts say that although the ECJ's ruling in November may not legally bind European countries to accept asylum requests from Russia's LGBT community, the increased attention to the struggle of gays in Russia may make countries with strong domestic support for gay rights more likely to consider the refugee-status requests anyway.

Or, some activists worry, after the international spotlight from the Sochi Olympics disappears, Russia could toughen its laws even further to make the possibility of asylum more likely.

Earlier this year, a spokesman for the influential Russian Orthodox Church called for a national referendum on an outright ban on homosexual relations in Russia.

Ivan Okhlobystin, the actor who had called for gays to be burned alive, has softened his stance, calling instead in an open letter to Putin for the reimplimentation of a Soviet-era law that carried a punishment of up to five years in prison for sodomy.
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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer.