October 21, 2010 (a Thursday)

Human Rights Building in Strasbourg, France.

On this date, in the case of Nikolai Alexeev v. Russia, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France ruled that Russia violated the European Convention on Human Rights with the banning of the 2006, 2007, and 2008 Moscow Gay Pride Marches. The beginning of the Court’s opinion recounted the facts of the historic case (numbers refer to specific paragraphs in the Court’s opinion):

6. In 2006 the applicant, together with other individuals, organized a march to draw public attention to discrimination against the gay and lesbian minority in Russia, to promote respect for human rights and freedoms and to call for tolerance on the part of the Russian authorities and the public at large towards this minority. The march was entitled “Pride March” that year, and “Gay Pride” in subsequent years, to replicate similar events held by homosexual communities in big cities worldwide. The date chosen for the march, 27 May 2006, was also meant to celebrate the anniversary of the abolition of criminal liability in Russia for homosexual acts.

7. On 16 February 2006 the Interfax news agency published a statement by Mr Tsoy, the press secretary of the mayor of Moscow, to the effect that “the government of Moscow [would] not even consider allowing the gay parade to be held”. Interfax further quoted Mr Tsoy as saying: “The mayor of Moscow, Mr Luzhkov, has firmly declared: the government of the capital city will not allow a gay parade to be held in any form, whether openly or disguised [as a human rights demonstration], and any attempt to hold any unauthorized action will be severely repressed”.

8. On 22 February 2006 Interfax quoted the mayor of Moscow as having said, on a different occasion, that if he received a request to hold a gay parade in Moscow he would impose a ban on it because he did not want “to stir up society, which is ill-disposed to such occurrences of life” and continuing that he himself considered homosexuality “unnatural”, though he “tried to treat everything that happens in human society with tolerance”.

(. . .)

11. On 15 May 2006 the organizers submitted a notice to the mayor of Moscow stating the date, time and route of the intended march. It was to take place between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on 27 May 2006, with an estimated number of about 2,000 participants, who would march from the Moscow Post Office along Myasnitskaya Street to Lubyanskaya Square. The organizers undertook to cooperate with the law-enforcement authorities in ensuring safety and respect for public order by the participants and to comply with regulations on restriction of noise levels when using loudspeakers and sound equipment.

12. On 18 May 2006 the Department for Liaison with Security Authorities of the Moscow Government informed the applicant of the mayor’s decision to refuse permission to hold the march on grounds of public order, for the prevention of riots and the protection of health, morals and the rights and freedoms of others. It stated, in particular, that numerous petitions had been brought against the march by representatives of legislative and executive State bodies, religious denominations, Cossack elders and other individuals; the march was therefore likely to cause a negative reaction and protests against the participants, which could turn into civil disorder and mass riots.

(. . .)

16. On 26 May 2006 Interfax quoted the mayor of Moscow as saying in an interview to the radio station Russian Radio that no gay parade would be allowed in Moscow under any circumstances, “as long as he was the city mayor”. He stated that all three “major” religious faiths – “the Church, the Mosque and the Synagogue” – were against it and that it was absolutely unacceptable in Moscow and in Russia, unlike “in some Western country more progressive in that sphere”. He went on to say: “That’s the way morals work. If somebody deviates from the normal principles [in accordance with which] sexual and gender life is organized, this should not be demonstrated in public and anyone potentially unstable should not be invited.” He stated that 99.9% of the population of Moscow supported the ban.

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Moscow police dispersed a gay pride rally on 16 May 2009 that was banned by city authorities, drawing attention to Russia’s record on gay rights as it prepared to host a major international pop music competition:

___________________________________________________________

And so on and so forth. The fact that the Moscow authorities were homophobic was firmly established in the Court’s ruling. In reaching its decision, the Court relied on extracts from Recommendation CM/Rec(2010)5 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to member States on measures to combat discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, including:

Member states should take appropriate measures to ensure, in accordance with Article 10 of the Convention, that the right to freedom of expression can be effectively enjoyed, without discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, including with respect to the freedom to receive and impart information on subjects dealing with sexual orientation or gender identity.

In a stinging rebuke to former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the Court stated:

86. The mayor of Moscow, whose statements were essentially reiterated in the Government’s observations, considered it necessary to confine every mention of homosexuality to the private sphere and to force gay men and lesbians out of the public eye, implying that homosexuality was a result of a conscious, and antisocial, choice. However, they were unable to provide justification for such exclusion. There is no scientific evidence or sociological data at the Court’s disposal suggesting that the mere mention of homosexuality, or open public debate about sexual minorities’ social status, would adversely affect children or “vulnerable adults”. On the contrary, it is only through fair and public debate that society may address such complex issues as the one raised in the present case. Such debate, backed up by academic research, would benefit social cohesion by ensuring that representatives of all views are heard, including the individuals concerned. It would also clarify some common points of confusion, such as whether a person may be educated or enticed into or out of homosexuality, or opt into or out of it voluntarily. This was exactly the kind of debate that the applicant in the present case attempted to launch, and it could not be replaced by the officials spontaneously expressing uninformed views which they considered popular. In the circumstances of the present case the Court cannot but conclude that the authorities’ decisions to ban the events in question were not based on an acceptable assessment of the relevant facts.

87. The foregoing considerations are sufficient to enable the Court to conclude that the ban on the events organized by the applicant did not correspond to a pressing social need and was thus not necessary in a democratic society.

As a result, The European Court ruled that Russian authorities violated three specific articles of the European Convention, namely, Article 11 (freedom of assembly and association), Article 13 (right to an effective remedy), and Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination). In its conclusion, the Court stated:

108. The Court reiterates that sexual orientation is a concept covered by Article 14 (see, among other cases, Kozak v. Poland, no. 13102/02, 2 March 2010). Furthermore, when the distinction in question operates in this intimate and vulnerable sphere of an individual’s private life, particularly weighty reasons need to be advanced before the Court to justify the measure complained of. Where a difference of treatment is based on sex or sexual orientation the margin of appreciation afforded to the State is narrow, and in such situations the principle of proportionality does not merely require the measure chosen to be suitable in general for realizing the aim sought; it must also be shown that it was necessary in the circumstances. Indeed, if the reasons advanced for a difference in treatment were based solely on the applicant’s sexual orientation, this would amount to discrimination under the Convention (ibid, § 92).

109. It has been established above that the main reason for the ban imposed on the events organized by the applicant was the authorities’ disapproval of demonstrations which they considered to promote homosexuality (see paragraphs 77-78 and 82 above). In particular, the Court cannot disregard the strong personal opinions publicly expressed by the mayor of Moscow and the undeniable link between these statements and the ban. In the light of these findings the Court also considers it established that the applicant suffered discrimination on the grounds of his sexual orientation and that of other participants in the proposed events. It further considers that the Government did not provide any justification showing that the impugned distinction was compatible with the standards of the Convention.

Peter Tatchell (left) and Louis-Georges Tin both praised Nikolai Alekseev for his courage in fighting for gay rights in Russia. The two are pictured with 'defiant' placards, with Moscow City Hall in the background, during the first Moscow Pride in 2006. (photo: UK Gay News)

The court awarded 12,000 euros in damages to Moscow gay rights advocate and Pride organizer Nikolai Alexeev and a further 17,500 euros in costs. “This is the first ever decision of the European Court of Human Rights which concerns freedom of assembly in Russia. It guarantees everyone freedom of expression without special permission,” Alexeyev told The Moscow News directly after the verdict.

Speaking to UK Gay News on the Court’s ruling, Peter Tatchell, the campaigner for global LGBT human rights, said in London, “Nikolai and his small band of daring LGBT activists have taken on the might of the Russian state – and won. It is a triumph for LGBT Russians and for all Russians who love liberty.” Louis-Georges Tin, the founder and president of the International Day Against Homophobia organization, said that the decision of the European Court of Human Rights cannot be clearer. “Russia must respect the rights of all citizens for freedom of assembly on its territory without delay, and especially LGBT activists who faced a systematic breach of this basic right in the past years,” he said.

However, under Articles 43 and 44 of the Convention, this “Chamber judgment” is not final. During the three-month period following its delivery, any party may request that the case be referred to the Grand Chamber of the Court. If such a request is made, a panel of judges considers whether the case deserves further examination. In that event, the Grand Chamber will hear the case and deliver a final judgment. If the referral request is refused, the Chamber judgment will become final on that day.

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