Putin regime's illegal effort to force end to Nikolai Alexeyev's European court lawsuits fails
Just three days after a frightening 72-hour ordeal in which he was kidnapped, drugged, and intimidated by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s security forces — provoking world-wide protests — Russia’s best known gay activist, the intrepid Nikolai Alexeyev, was arrested on September 21 along with ten other gay activists, part of a group of 30 who were holding a demonstration outside ultra-homophobic Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s office.
An Agence France Presse reporter was also briefly detained.
In full view of a large media contingent, Alexeyev, a young lawyer and the lead organizer of repeated annual attempts to hold Gay Pride marches in that city, was roughly dragged away by police after he had chained himself to the fence surrounding Luzhkov’s City Hall office.
Luzhkov, who has called Gay Pride marches “satanic,” has banned them since 2006.
Alexeyev told Gay City News by telephone from Moscow that his wrist was badly injured when police used brute physical force to separate him from the fence, instead of following standard practice of using a chain-cutter. “It will take awhile to heal, but I am okay,” he said. (A video of the arrests, with Russian subtitles, is at youtube.com/watch?v=f1yocqekWS0.)
Those arrested were released the same day, and Alexeyev said they are due back in court on October 6 to face charges of “holding an illegal demonstration.”
The City Hall protest was planned in advance of Alexeyev’s kidnapping, after a Moscow court dismissed a lawsuit the activist had brought against the mayor under Russia’s law forbidding hate speech. The suit cited Luzhkov’s use of the word “gomiki,” the Russian equivalent of “faggot,” to describe homosexuals.
Freedom of speech and assembly are, in theory, guaranteed by the Russian Constitution and by international treaties to which that nation is a signatory, but those rights have been ignored and trampled under Putin’s authoritarian reign.
Over the last five years, Alexeyev has used his skills as a lawyer to bring 168 court cases challenging the Russian government’s squelching of gay demonstrations and its official expressions of homophobia. After exhausting legal remedies within the nation’s judicial system, he has taken a number of the cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). (For a comprehensive portrait of Alexeyev’s gay activism, see this reporter’s Jun. 24, 2010 article, “Moscow’s Man of Action.” )
“It was like a VIP service at the police station,” Alexeyev said of his treatment after the City Hall arrest, an official response no doubt the result of the outcry from Western governments and advocates over his earlier detention. “The police did everything to write the protocols and get rid of us as fast as possible. I have never seen any such service from this police station in the last five years that I have been regularly taken there when conducting our actions.”
Alexeyev’s nightmare three-day kidnapping began on the evening of September 15 at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, when he was about to board a Swiss Air Lines flight for a three-day trip to Geneva. After passing through passport control, he was arrested by Russian border police, who ordered the airlines to off-load his luggage.
Because he had already cleared passport control, Alexeyev was legally no longer under Russian authority but in an international zone, making his arrest illegal.
Taken to a small room in the airport, he was able to use his mobile phone to alert his colleagues at gayrussia.ru, the human rights website he co-founded that has been a major catalyst for the Russian LGBT rights movement. Alexeyev also telephoned Interfax, considered the most reliable and independent Russian news agency, and Ekho Moskv (“Echo of Moscow”), a popular, independent news radio station heard in dozens of cities and on the Internet. His arrest was widely reported throughout the country over the next 24 hours.
“Even though they seized my laptop, which had all sorts of crucial organizational information in it, in the beginning, I wasn’t all that worried after I was arrested by the police, because I thought my arrest would be handled according to law,” Alexeyev told Gay City News. “But then four hulking plainclothes men who would not identify themselves and whose faces were not disfigured by intellect showed up and took me away by a back exit, and this was very scary.”
In a written statement he distributed to media after his eventual release, Alexeyev said, “I was prepared to shout out that I was being kidnapped, but they took me to where there were no people at all.”
The four plainclothes men, he said, “stuck me in some kind of foreign car and drove me for two hours to where, it quickly became clear, was not Moscow. They brought me to what I understood was some police building, brought me into a room, and began to search me.
I had no idea where I was. And then when I was left alone for a period of time, I reached for my iPad, and with two taps learned my location. If it was not for this device, I still wouldn’t know where they took me on the first day. My location showed up as the town of Kashira,” 70 miles from Moscow.
Meanwhile, alerted by Alexeyev’s mobile phone call, Nikolai Baev, a co-organizer of Moscow Pride, and two other colleagues from gayrussia.ru, went to the airport to try to find him. “The airport police told them that Nikolai was not detained by the airport police and one police officer suggested that he was being interrogated by the FSB (ex-KGB) at its headquarter in Lubyanka,” the infamous former KGB headquarters and prison, a statement published on gayrussia.ru that evening reported. “A recent law passed by the Russian Parliament, and signed-off by President Medvedev in July of this year, allows the FSB to echo Soviet practices.”
“The FSB denied to answer questions tonight,” the statement continued. “No more information is expected before tomorrow morning. Under Russian law, enforcement authorities have no right to detain people for long periods without charges and without giving reasons for the detention, but this time has already expired at 10 p.m. Moscow time.”
Shortly after the statement on Alexeyev’s arrest was posted, the gayrussia.ru website was disabled, in an attack obviously coordinated by hackers, presumably from the FSB, which has an extensive electronic surveillance and monitoring department. Andy Harley, editor of UK Gay News, who had several times traveled to Moscow for the banned Pride demonstrations, played a crucial role in pumping out information to Western gay media and activists about Alexeyev’s arrest, staying in telephone contact with Moscow activists and posting updates every few hours.
As a result, a number of Western governments were prodded by activists into making formal communiqués to the Russian foreign ministry about Alexeyev’s arrest and his safety.
In Germany, protests on Alexeyev’s behalf were led by Volker Beck, an openly gay member of the Bundestag, who was badly beaten and arrested at the 2007 Moscow Pride demonstration, which was crushed by police in collusion with anti-gay neo-fascists. (For details, see this reporter’s May 31, 2007 article, “The Agony of Moscow Pride.”) Beck organized a demonstration by 50 people — cosponsored by the national LGBT rights group LSVD (Lesben- und Schwulenverband in Deutschland) — protesting Alexeyev’s arrest at Russia’s embassy in Berlin. Beck delivered a letter signed by the human rights representatives of all five parties in the Bundestag denouncing his disappearance. The German foreign ministry, headed by openly gay Guido Westerwell, also conveyed its concern for Alexeyev to its Russian counterpart.
In France, 36 hours after Alexeyev’s arrest, the French foreign ministry also delivered a formal public protest. “France expresses its extreme preoccupation over the reported disappearance in Moscow of Nikolai Alexeyev as he was preparing to travel to Geneva,” spokesman Bernard Valero said at a press conference. “We demand that the Russian authorities respect the right of freedom of expression and guarantee the freedom of movement of Alexeyev, and [French Foreign Minister] Bernard Kouchner will convey these sentiments today to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.”
Jean-Luc Romero, an openly gay local elected official who was the first politician in France to disclose his HIV-positive status, played a key role in getting the country’s foreign ministry to speak out.
In the UK, agitation about Alexeyev was spearheaded by Sarah Ludford, a member of the European Parliament from Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party who also sits in the House of Lords.
“Nikolai Alexeyev’s arrest is of deep concern — he was not given any explanation for his detention and it has been suggested that the secret services are involved,” Ludford said. “State-sponsored homophobia, as shown by bans on Gay Prides, is common in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe, and I fear that this arrest of a prominent gay rights campaigner may be part of this.”
In the US, several members of Congress, including New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt, asked the State Department to express its concerns on Alexeyev’s behalf to the Russian government, but no public statement was forthcoming from Secretary Hillary Clinton’s office.
Alexeyev said that he suffered “psychological torture” and “mocking with homosexual insults,” including “faggot” and “pederast,” during his interrogation, and was subjected to “intense pressure” to withdraw the case he brought to the European Court of Human Rights challenging Mayor Luzhkov’s ban on the Gay Pride marches in 2006, 2007, and 2008.
The ECHR is expected to issue its decision by the end of the year, and is almost certain to uphold the right of Russian gays to demonstrate given its 2007 ruling against a Polish ban on Warsaw’s Gay Pride march. Alexeyev said he refused to sign a written statement withdrawing his case forced on him by his thuggish interrogators.
Alexeyev is also convinced he was drugged while in custody. “They gave me water in an already-filled glass to drink,” he said, “and I began to have doubts relative to the composition of the water. For the period of two days I lost concentration and felt some kind of emotional unresponsiveness. Only several hours after my return to Moscow today did I understand that there was a purpose to all this.”
It was then — after three days in captivity —that he learned about a series of phony text messages sent from his confiscated mobile phone claiming he had been deported to Minsk, the capital of the neighboring former Soviet republic of Belarus. Interfax’s Belarus branch had published a dispatch falsely reporting that Alexeyev had told them he was withdrawing his ECHR suit and seeking political asylum in that nation.
The Interfax dispatch from Minsk heightened the fears about Alexeyev’s safety among those who know him. Belarus is a dictatorship ruled by a former high ranking Soviet military official, Alexander Lukashenko, since 1994; his regime has persecuted the country’s gay activists. The idea that Alexeyev would request political asylum there was absurd.
In fact, the Interfax dispatch and the phony text messages were part of an elaborate disinformation plot orchestrated, there is little doubt, by Putin’s FSB. Murders of human rights activists and journalists critical of the Putin regime have become so frequent in recent years that the fear that Alexeyev’s life would be snuffed out before he could return to public view and deny the fabrications was quite real.
“I would never even think about asking for asylum in Belarus, and even if I did I highly doubt that the authorities there would accommodate me,” Alexeyev said when informed about the hoax. “To have withdrawn my complaint from Strasbourg [headquarters of the ECHR] would have been a betrayal of all those who’ve been with me for these last five years.”
Fortunately, with the whole world watching, Alexeyev was finally released. “On Friday evening [September 17], they put me in a car and drove me to the outskirts of [Kashira], where they stopped and said, ‘Get out,’” he explained. “I made my way downtown, understanding that I couldn’t take a train because I’d need to show my [confiscated] passport. As a result, I grabbed the first bus to Moscow, arriving by morning.”
Alexeyev now intends to file a number of lawsuits.
“I intend to take Domodedovo Airport and its aviation safety department, which violated international law and forcibly returned me to Russian jurisdiction, to court,” he said.
He also plans to sue Swiss Air Lines in the Swiss courts. “My ticket was purchased in Switzerland, therefore the contract between Swiss Air Lines and the passenger is concluded on the basis of Swiss law,” he said. “I will also demand a complete investigation into the basis of crimes against me in the form of illegal deprivation of freedom and kidnapping.”
Alexeyev told Gay City News that his priority is to get gayrussia.ru back to full working order.
“After I got back to Moscow, we had posted a large number of the foreign press articles on the site,” he said, “but then it was hacked again, and when we managed to get it back up all those articles and all references to my arrest and kidnapping had been deleted. I’m now in intense negotiations with our ISP to have the site restored to full functioning and its archives restored as well.”
Alexeyev has had the last laugh at one of his persecutors. As Gay City News was going to press, news broke that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has fired Mayor Luzhkov after a long public feud between the two men, a move which Alexeyev had predicted to this reporter several days earlier.
“First of all it is a very courageous decision of the president, and it shows that he is the president,” a jubilant Alexeyev crowed on the phone to the Moscow News. “All Moscow and all the people in the city should be thankful to him because he has freed the city from all the mafia that were here before and that worked under criminal understandings of the law.”
Hopefully, the indomitable courage and perseverance shown by Nikolai Alexeyev and his Russian activist colleagues and the example of his liberation after global protests will remind us of how our duties toward international queer solidarity can have a real, and even life-saving, impact.
Doug Ireland may be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/.