A court has ruled that Russian LGBT rights organization Coming Out is a foreign agent, which means that it faces the prospect of having to register under that label.
The ruling came after a four-hour trial in July, the latest chapter in the St Petersburg organization’s 16-month battle to avoid the controversial label.
The legal fight began in April 2013 when Coming Out was charged with an administrative violation of a law that requires all NGOs that receive funding from abroad and that engage in what is deemed to be political activity to register as foreign agents. Coming Out appealed the charges and won the case in August 2013.
In October of the same year, a new suit against the organization was filed. This time, Coming Out faced a civil charge. The city’s central district prosecutor claimed that Coming Out’s failure to register as a foreign agent violated the rights of an “unidentified group of persons.” After four preliminary hearings and three formal hearings, the Vasileostrovsky District Court of St Petersburg issued a final ruling, demanding that Coming Out register as a foreign agent.
According to Coming Out’s Facebook page, Judge Naidyonova ruled that the organization meets the criteria for being considered a foreign agent because it received international funding and because its brochure on how to recognize discrimination and protect human rights is political propaganda.
“The judge explained that Coming Out’s brochure is propaganda material because if someone reads this brochure, and is impressed, they might start to share these thoughts with other people, create a coalition and start activities,” the Facebook post reads.
Coming Out’s lawyers argued that the organization’s material does not aim to change governmental policies, as there is no formal policy regarding LGBT, and can therefore not be labelled as propaganda. That argument was not taken into account, the post states.
Joining the foreign agent roster would oblige the organization to identify itself as a foreign agent on all printed materials and would subject it to additional governmental audits and controls.
Coming Out argues that the label implies it is engaged in political activities on behalf of other countries and that having the label on its public materials will cause the organization to appear as an unnecessary and potentially harmful institution to the general public.
“The arduous attempts to label us foreign agents are in line with the Russian Federation’s promotion of traditional values, domestically and abroad, of which homophobia seems to be an important one,” says activist Polina Andrianova in Coming Out’s press release. “Our goal is equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. We want St Petersburg’s citizens to understand and respect each other. We will not work under this label.”
Coming Out’s Facebook page states that the organization will appeal the court’s ruling but notes there is “no guarantee that the organization will not be registered in the nearest future.”
Although the court cannot force Coming Out to register at this time, a recent amendment to the foreign-agents law may change the situation. According to the amendment, the Ministry of Finance can now automatically register an organization as a foreign agent without the organization’s consent. Although this amendment does not affect the current case, because it cannot be applied retroactively, it may affect Coming Out and other human rights organizations in the future.
The LGBT Network is already preparing to deal with the potential impact of this amendment to the foreign-agents law.
“Although we were previously investigated, the question is not closed,” says Igor Kochetkov, the LGBT Network’s director.
The LGBT Network’s parent organization received a court order to register as a foreign agent, following a government investigation conducted last year, but ultimately was not forced to comply.
“We responded to the court order, raising several legal objections,” Kochetkov says. “The prosecutor’s office replied that they would review our objections and pursue legal action if necessary. There was no follow-up, and now the timeline for that case has elapsed. This does not mean we will not face problems down the road.”
Kochetkov says that the LGBT Network will provide Coming Out with support on request and will be paying close attention to the proceedings so as to be able to anticipate any problems for their own operation.
“Last time, organizations which began to openly fight the government’s requests early in the process ended up in a more advantageous position,” he explains. “We are getting prepared.”