London — Russia’s prohibition of what it considers the promotion of homosexuality is discriminatory and violates freedom of expression, Europe’s top human rights court ruled on Tuesday, in a strong rejection of laws that rights groups say have been routinely used as cover for abuse and violence.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, but gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are often subject to discrimination, persecution and worse.
The prohibition, codified in national law in 2013, has been seen as a central plank of President Vladimir V. Putin’s nationalist message, one that has positioned Russia as a defender of Christian and traditional values, and the West as decadent and godless.
Ruling in favor of three gay activists, the European Court of Human Rights found that “the very purpose of the laws and the way they were formulated and applied” was “discriminatory and, over all, served no legitimate public interest.” It ordered Russia to pay the men a total of 43,000 euros, or $48,000, in damages.
“By adopting such laws,” a seven-judge panel of the court added, the government “reinforced stigma and prejudice and encouraged homophobia, which was incompatible with the values of a democratic society.”
Russia ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998. The court, which is charged with interpreting the treaty, which took effect in 1953, has often castigated the country. The ruling is binding, but as with much else in international law, there is not a strong enforcement mechanism. Russia vowed to file an appeal.
“The laws on the ban of propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors did not contradict international practice and were aimed at defending children’s morality and health,” the Russian Justice Ministry said in a statement.
“The laws did not impose any measures that would ban homosexuality or condemn it officially. They were not discriminatory.”
In addition, Andrey A. Klishas, a member of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s Parliament, said the country would not honor the decision “because it contradicts the Russian Constitution.”
The “gay propaganda law,” as it became known, is actually a series of statutes introduced at regional levels in 2003 and 2006 and at the federal level in 2013, essentially proscribing public mention of homosexuality.
In particular, the 2013 law banned “the promoting of nontraditional sexual relationships among minors” and “creating a distorted image of the social equivalence of traditional and nontraditional sexual relationships.”
Critics said the law’s very wording promoted insidious stereotypes that gay people promote a “homosexual lifestyle,” or even worse, prey on children.
This year, it emerged that gay men had been detained and tortured in the Chechnya region of Russia, in what observers likened to a pogrom.
The three activists who sued — Nikolai V. Bayev, 42; Aleksei A. Kiselev, 33; and Nikolai A. Alekseyev, 39 — staged demonstrations from 2009 to 2012 in the cities of Ryazan, Arkhangelsk and St. Petersburg, carrying banners stating that homosexuality is natural, not a perversion. They were arrested and fined.
They challenged the verdicts before Russia’s Constitutional Court, which upheld the ban on the grounds of protecting morals. The three men then brought their complaints to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.
The judges ruled 6 to 1 against Russia. The judge who dissented, Dmitry Dedov, is Russian.
Mr. Alekseyev praised the ruling as “a destructive blow against one of the pillars of Russia’s modern ideology,” and “another confirmation that representatives of L.G.B.T. community are under discrimination in Russia and their rights are violated.”
The ruling focused on two doctrines: freedom of expression and nondiscrimination.
On the first part, the court flatly rejected the government’s claim that regulating public debate on homosexuality served to protect morals. Russia “failed to demonstrate how freedom of expression on L.G.B.T. issues would devalue or otherwise adversely affect actual and existing ‘traditional families’ or would compromise their future,” the court found.
The laws flouted “a clear European consensus about the recognition of individuals’ right to openly identify themselves as gay, lesbian or any other sexual minority, and to promote their own rights and freedoms,” the judges wrote.
The court also found that Russia had been unable to “provide any explanation of the mechanism” by which a minor might 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 vagueness of some provisions made their potential scope unlimited, the court ruled. For example, it found, one of the men had been fined for demonstrating in front of the headquarters of the St. Petersburg city government — a public space that is not known to be popular among children — with signs with neutral statements like “homosexuality is not a perversion.”
On the issue of nondiscrimination, the judges found that “differences based solely on considerations of sexual orientation” are unacceptable under the European convention.
Russia’s law “specifically states that same-sex relationships are inferior to opposite-sex relationships,” and therefore “embodied a predisposed bias,” the court found.
In his dissent, Judge Dedov said his colleagues had failed to properly balance conflicting rights.
He wrote that the law “had a legitimate aim, namely the protection of public morals, public health and the rights of others,” and that it sought “to protect the privacy (including the dignity and integrity) of the children and the convictions of their parents as to how their children should organize their family life.”
Judge Dedov also defended the ban as a matter of policy: “The idea that same-sex sexual relations are normal indeed creates a situation where they are ready to engage in such relations, just because of the curiosity which is an integral part of a child’s mind. This is how the dissemination of ideas works vis-à-vis children.”
He cited statistics reporting that 50,000 children a year are sexually abused in Russia, most by men. “An unauthorized dissemination of information seeking to attract a child’s interest in sexual relations may destroy the child’s own perceptions of private and family life,” he wrote.
Taken to its conclusion, “the position of the court could be understood as saying that such demonstrations, even if held in the vicinity of the schools, are relevant and even useful in a democratic society,” Judge Dedov wrote. “I am not sure that the parents would agree with such a far-reaching liberal approach!”
by Sewell Chan
Source – The New York Times