International News: Russia, AIDS, Uganda

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Russia law criminalizing gays causes raids

While Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy was visiting the U.S. to plead for more funding for the war against Russia, Russia was focusing on further repression of the LGBTQ+ community. A new law from the Russian Supreme Court that categorizes symbols and information that are not heterosexual as extremist has been passed. Those who break the law could face large fines and long jail sentences.

As PGN reported, the ruling criminalizes anyone who supports LGBTQ+ people, so it goes well beyond a crackdown on human rights activists and other LGBTQ+ advocates. Activists warned a rise in arrests was likely to happen and that there will be little reporting of any restrictive measures taken against LGBTQ+ people.

Now reports are coming in that Russian riot police have been raiding LGBTQ+ clubs all over Russia. Last weekend, they were filmed raiding Fame, an LGBTQ+ club in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports dozens of patrons were detained while police recorded their personal information.

Similar raids were carried out in Moscow clubs in early December. And St. Petersburg’s oldest gay club, the Central Station, has now been closed. St. Petersburg is Russia’s second-largest city.

“The site we rented refused to allow us to work because of the [new] law. We apologize, we are no longer in business,” the club said on the VKontakte social media site.

At the Fame raid, the music cuts out suddenly and the lights go on. Officers can be heard yelling at patrons and shining flashlights into the corners of the room. Soon the patrons are seen filing out of the club. All were reportedly arrested.

The overnight raids in Moscow and elsewhere began the day after the Supreme Court decision banned all LGBTQ+ activities effective immediately in a closed-doors ruling at the Justice Ministry on Nov. 30.

The Caution News site reported on its Telegram channel that one club raided by police was hosting an LGBTQ-themed night and was attended by more than 300 people. Police checked ID and recorded the information. Activists have previously accused police of blackmailing LGBTQ+ people after arrests.

At another club, masked police officers searching the sauna made everyone lie on the floor face-down, Caution, Moscow quoted witnesses as saying.

On Dec. 1, the human rights initiative LGBT+ Cause announced that it was ending its Russia operation following the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“Due to external circumstances, we are forced to announce the self-dissolution of our initiative and, accordingly, the cessation of activities in Russia,” LGBT+ Cause said on Telegram.

LGBT+ Cause has been active in protecting the rights of people discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports, “Activists and rights defenders have warned the newly adopted legislation could lead to the blanket prosecution of not just activists but also those who seek shelter from homophobic violence under a threat of up to 10 years of imprisonment.”

Also under the Russian law, those found guilty of participating in or financing extremism can be sentenced to up to 12 years in prison, according to Human Rights Watch. 

Anti-LGBTQ+ laws increase AIDS cases

UNAIDS is the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS and is the main advocate for accelerated, comprehensive and coordinated global action on the HIV/AIDS pandemic. After World AIDS Day 2023, Winnie Byanyima — the executive director of UNAIDS — said that anti-LGBTQ+ laws are impeding efforts to control the disease.

“When LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized communities are stigmatized and criminalized, their access to lifesaving health services is obstructed, and the HIV response is undermined,”  Byanyima said.

Sixty-seven countries have laws that criminalize gay sex, with nearly half in Africa, which is more impacted by HIV than anywhere else in the world. According to UNAIDS, in countries that criminalize gay sex, HIV prevalence is about five times higher among gay men than in countries where gay sex is not criminalized. One example is Uganda, which PGN has reported on. UNAIDS says the law has already generated a surge in human rights violations and reduced HIV prevention and treatment services for LGBTQ+ people.

Lois Chingandu, the director of external relations at the charity Frontline AIDS, said: “It is important that countries do more when it comes to investing in HIV prevention methods, but also show stronger leadership in countering anti-rights narratives within their countries.”

Well-funded and highly organized movements are promoting anti-LGBTQ views, Chingandu said.

Lack of safe sex education is another problem with controlling new cases of HIV, Byanyima said. “When young people are denied access to sexual education, they are made much more vulnerable to HIV,” said Byanyima. “The global anti-rights wave doesn’t just threaten democracy and personal freedom, it threatens the health of everyone.”

Activists challenge Uganda’s anti-LGBTQ+ law

Efforts to overturn the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQ+ law moved to Uganda’s constitutional court this week with LGBTQ+ activists appearing at the court to finalize their appeal before the date is set for a full hearing later this month.

Clare Byarugaba, an LGBTQ+ advocate from Chapter Four, a Ugandan civil liberties organization, told media, “We are challenging the anti-homosexuality law because it does not pass any constitutional litmus test, and we shall win, because such an abhorrent law whose only aim is to spread hate and institutionalized discrimination and exclusion does not belong on Uganda’s law books and should never have been enacted in the first place.”

Last week, the U.S. imposed visa restrictions on hundreds of Ugandan legislators and their families over their involvement in enacting the law. No individuals were named.

In a statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “The United States stands by the Ugandan people and remains committed to working together to advance democracy, human rights, public health and mutual prosperity.”

Blinken added, “I once again strongly encourage the government of Uganda to make concerted efforts to uphold democracy and to respect and protect human rights so that we may sustain the decades-long partnership between our countries that has benefited Americans and Ugandans alike.”

The U.S. Treasury department also sanctioned Uganda’s prison commissioner, Johnson Byabashaija, over the alleged torture and abuse of human rights of LGBTQ+ inmates at the country’s correctional facilities.

Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, dismissed the U.S. restrictions. On Friday he said, “Don’t be intimidated by all those fellows. If there’s someone who doesn’t want to respect our sovereignty, we pray for them, they can go. We have the capacity, we don’t lack anything, the economy is growing so we shall be able to sustain ourselves.”

Earlier, the speaker of the Ugandan parliament, Anita Annet Among, had urged MPs and officials to ignore the restrictions.

“The blacklist that they are talking about, don’t care, don’t worry about that. You have all that you need in this country, Uganda, so long as your kids are not being sodomized,” Among told legislators.

“We will continue protecting the family, protecting the rights of our children and our country and we will not live on handouts. My visa was canceled, have I died?” she said. Among’s U.S. and U.K. visas were canceled when the anti-LGBTQ+ bill was signed into law.

Chris Baryomunsi, Uganda’s information and national guidance minister, said it was “wrong for the western world to single out Ugandans.”

He said, “We pass laws in the interests of Ugandans, not foreigners. Therefore, nobody is going to coerce parliament or the government to start making laws in the interest of foreigners. We should remain very firm.”

Since the law was passed, violence and discrimination has intensified against LGBTQ+ groups, according to a recent report by the Convening for Equality (CFE) coalition.

The report documented 180 house evictions and 176 incidents of torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, including forced anal examinations of people held in police custody.

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.