Russian Activist Persecuted For Sharing Guardian Article About Gay Marriage - Among Other Things
On a warm spring day in May 2015, Evdokia Romanova, a young civil society activist from the large central Russian city of Samara, did something thousands of other internet users also did. On her Facebook timeline, she shared an online article, published by the respected British newspaper The Guardian, about the victory of the Yes campaign in Ireland's referendum on marriage equality. Along with a link to the article, Evdokia Romanova also posted a very brief, personal comment congratulating Ireland and the triumphant Yes campaigners.
Evdokia Romanova could never have expected that more than two years later, this social media post, as well as other human rights-related media content she shared, would make her the subject of a Russian police investigation for allegedly breaching the country's draconian "gay propaganda" law.
The law, officially known as Part II, 6.21 of the Code of Administrative Penalty, bans the promotion of a "distorted view of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations". It was introduced by Putin's regime in 2013, but has attracted fierce international criticism.
In May this year, the European Court of Human Rights, whose jurisdiction Russia is subject to, ruled that the law breaches the European Convention on Human Rights' guarantees of freedom of expression and non-discrimination. It called the law an "example" of "predisposed bias" on part of "a heterosexual majority against a homosexual minority". The court also strongly rejected the Russian government's alarmist rhetoric around the risk of children being "converted" to homosexuality. It noted that the Russian government "had been unable to provide any explanation of the mechanism by which a minor could be enticed into 'a homosexual lifestyle', let alone science-based evidence that one's sexual orientation or identity was susceptible to change under external influence." The judgment is not yet final, and may be subject to appeal.
The European judgement did not, however, stop officials of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs regional office in Samara from using the discredited law to launch an "investigation" targeting Evdokia Romanova this summer.
In late July, government officials summoned Evdokia Romanova to a formal, police-style interview: They then informed her that she was under criminal investigation for allegedly breaking the law with her social media shares and posts - even though some of the social media content in question is years old.
A lawyer acting for Romanova confirmed to the author of this article that the social media post sharing the Guardian article is listed in the case materials that form part of the allegations against Evdokia Romanova. According to the lawyer, other social media posts that are part of the case against Romanova include content linking to a Buzzfeed news article, and content relating to Watchdog, the news-letter of international human rights campaign group Youth Coalition.
Evdokia Romanova has strongly rejected the allegations against her, and exercised her constitutional right not to provide testimony to officials in connection with the investigation against her.
Russian authorities did not respond to a request for comment regarding the case. In Russia, where the independence of the judiciary is severely compromised, police investigations frequently lead to injust convictions.
A spokesperson for GNM, the publishers of The Guardian, expressed concern about the case against Evdokia Romanova . They said
"The Guardian regularly reports on LGBTQ and human rights issues around the world and will continue to do so. It is concerning that sharing a Guardian article on social media could result in persecution."
Russian gay rights activists see the case against Romanova as an attempt by law enforcement agencies to pressure human rights defenders into silence.
Oksana Berezovskaya, the director of Avers Samara, a LGBT human rights group for whom Romanova campaigns, stated
" In my opinion the case against Evdokia Romanova is an initiative of local law enforcement agencies. We are the only large LGBT human rights organization in the Samara region and for this reason we are constantly subject to the close attention of law enforcement agencies. Thus, I think that the case against Evdokia under Article. 6.21 is designed to put pressure both on Evdokia, and on Avers as an organisation"
Avers Samara spokesperson Vera Bochkareva also explained that the investigation against Romanova is part of a wider policy of state sanctioned homophobia in Russia. She commented
"We believe that the trial of Evdokia Romanova is the result of a wider state policy of homophobia in Russia. Discussion of human rights problems is silenced,it is forbidden to discuss LGBTQ + issues in a positive way research on the theme of homosexuality is secretly banned in the scientific community; according to the opinion of the general population we frighten children, that is why we are beaten on the streets. Silence and criminalisation breeds shame and internal homophobia increases like pressure in a pressure cooker. This leads to an increase in violence in societies - as, for example, in Chechnya. Not so long ago, we had a teenage boy beaten in Samara, just because other teenagers thought he looked like a gay (even though he wasn't)."
Concerningly, ever since the case against her came to the attention of the wider public in Samara, Evdokia Romanova herself has become a target for vicious, homophobic online abuse. She said that unnamed local internet users called for her to be murdered.