|Nikolai Alekseyev during his picket near St. Petersburg City Hall on April 12.|
First activist convicted under Russian 'anti gay' law
SAINT PETERSBURG - A Saint Petersburg court on Friday fined a prominent gay rights activist for "propaganda of homosexuality" to minors, in its first conviction under a controversial new city law.
Nikolai Alexeyev, the organiser of numerous unsanctioned gay pride marches in Moscow, was fined 5,000 rubles ($169) under a new city law that bans propaganda of homosexuality and paedophilia to minors, he told AFP.
The judge "opened a Pandora's box" by issuing the first such ruling, he said, adding that he will appeal and plans to contest the law at the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights.
"I think it will be viewed very negatively and it will show the absurdity of what's going on in 21st-century Saint Petersburg," he said, calling the law "absolutely arbitrary."
Alexeyev, 34, a lawyer, was detained for holding up a banner outside the city hall that read "Homosexuality is not perverted. What's perverted is hockey on grass and ballet on ice," a quote from a Soviet film star.
He said that he was charged with propaganda to minors even though there were no children around him, with police gathering witness statements from people sitting in a nearby park who had not even seen his poster.
Several other activists have also been charged in the city under the law, but Alexeyev was the first to be sentenced, with the judge asked to rule solely on that charge in an apparent test case.
The law equates "propaganda" of homosexuality and paedophilia, although homosexuality was decriminalised in Russia in 1993, while paedophilia is a crime.
Similar local laws outlawing gay propaganda among minors have already been approved and put into force in the regions of Ryazan and Kostroma outside Moscow and Arkhangelsk in the Far North.
Regional deputies have also submitted a draft law to the federal State Duma parliament that if voted in, would make the offence punishable nationwide.
The law was signed into law in March in Saint Petersburg, Russia's second largest city of 4.8 million people, after it was proposed by a legislator from the ruling United Russia party.
It has been widely criticised because its vague wording allows police to crack down on almost any gay rights event and has drawn ire from gay rights supporters internationally.
The controversy has also caused diplomatic tensions: the US State Department in February said it was deeply concerned the bill would restrict freedom of assembly for gays.
American pop singer Madonna, who has a huge gay following, promised to raise the issue at her concert in the city in August.
"I will speak during my show about this ridiculous atrocity," she wrote on her Facebook page in March, while vowing not to cancel the date, despite pressure from some activists.
Alexeyev has organised a series of gay pride protests in Moscow with international participants including Britain's Peter Tatchell. The events have been outlawed by the city authorities and roughly broken up by riot police.
He has announced the latest gay pride event in Moscow to go ahead on May 27.
Moscow's sacked former mayor Yury Luzhkov repeatedly called gay parades "Satanic," while his successor, Sergei Sobyanin, has also said that he views gay pride events in the city as unacceptable.