Lene Christensen, Media Advisor at Amnesty International Norway, blog from Sochi, Russia
At a café in Sochi, 17-year-old “Ivan” quietly talks about his experiences as an openly gay young man in the Olympic city. A city in which there are no gay people, according to the Mayor.
Ivan has a disturbing story to tell. After someone hacked his social media account about a year ago, news quickly spread about his sexual orientation.
When he changed schools, the information about his sexuality again spread like wildfire among his new schoolmates. Now, a regular day at school includes being spat on and verbally abused, he tells us. He’s been physically attacked several times and some unknown attackers poured dirty water and urine on him. One time they went as far as attempting to rape him. His voice breaks as he recounts his almost daily ordeal.
It’s a chilling story to listen to. Especially knowing that for Ivan, like many other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people in Russia, it’s pointless to seek help and support from teachers or to file a complaint with the police about harassment and violent attacks. In Ivan’s case, when he did try to complain, the school administration simply told him to delete his page on social networks, as if it could remedy the situation. They also questioned his certainty about his own sexual orientation – instead of challenging the other students’ homophobic attitudes.
But even if they wanted to challenge these attitudes, might it be interpreted as violating the law which bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”? Perhaps…
After the introduction of the law last year, Ivan has noticed constantly growing hostility towards gay people, and feels that they are now a new target for others’ hatred.
Ivan is worried about what’s going to happen after the Olympic flame peters out. “I think the Olympics are the only thing that’s stopping them for now…I’m afraid the future will be a nightmare,” he says.
Ivan’s fear of a backlash in the aftermath of the Olympics is not only a concern for the LGBTI community. Local journalist Nicolay Yarst also told Amnesty about possible retaliation against those criticizing the authorities ahead of and during the games.
“When Sochi is over, things can really get worse,” he says.
Nicolay knows what he’s talking about. He describes his own experience as a typical example of how Russian authorities clamp down on freedom of speech.
Soon after he wrote a news story in May last year about corruption and injustice in Sochi, the authorities made sure he was no longer able to do his job.
He was arrested by police who claimed he had drugs in his car. His criminal case file has gone back and forth between the police investigator and the prosecutor’s office five times, but never made it to court because the “evidence” is so poor. But the authorities remain keen on prosecuting him.
In the meantime, his bail conditions prevent him from leaving Sochi. As a journalist this seriously hampers his work.
With the evidence against him falling apart, he is cautiously optimistic that the case will eventually be dropped. But there is no indication of when this may happen. In the meantime he is struggling to provide for himself and his family. “I’m sitting in my apartment, not knowing what to do. I’ve basically been shut off,” he says.
Another effective method used by the Russian authorities is intimidation tactics against families of government critics. Nicolay’s wife and daughter had to move to another city, as he is afraid they might be targeted as well. His parents have already been visited by some officials, who alleged their son was possibly a paedophile, and Nicolay wants to avoid any further incidents involving his family members. Now he only gets to see his family occasionally. But he has to put their safety first.
Framing journalists and civil society activists who shine a spotlight on the harsh reality of everyday life in Russia appears a well-known practice in the country.
Nicolay knew what he was getting into when he decided to become a journalist, he says. “I am not broken, I will keep on working to bring forward stories about social inequality.”
The first prisoner of conscience of Sochi2014
Read Amnesty’s recent press releases:
Russia: Civil society activist arrested ahead of start of Sochi Olympics (3 February 2014)
Russia: Another environmentalist in custody as his NGO forced to scrap Sochi report launch (4 February 2014)
Sign the petition: Freedom under threat in Russia
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Visit our LGBTI Campaign page