With the eyes of the world about to turn to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, a human rights group has released a new disturbing video highlighting violence against gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people under Russia's anti-gay laws that went into effect last year.
"LGBT people face stigma, harassment and violence in their everyday lives in Russia," Human Rights Watch, the group that released the video, said in an accompanying statement. "These problems intensified in 2013. Victims in cities including Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk told [us] they were attacked in public places, abducted, beaten, harassed, threatened and psychologically abused."
The video shows gay men in Russia being punched, kicked and beaten by attackers who filmed and disseminated the footage, which was then compiled by the human rights group.
Most victims, the group added, "were afraid to go to the police to report violence, fearing further harassment and believing the police would not bother to pursue their attackers. When victims did lodge complaints with the police, few investigations followed."
Last June, the Russian Parliament passed a bill making homosexual propaganda illegal, banning the discussion and promotion of "nontraditional sexual relationships to minors." Last month, in an interview ahead of the Sochi Games, Russian President Vladmir Putin defended the law.
"We aren't banning anything," Putin said. "We aren't rounding up anyone. We don't prosecute anyone for such relations, unlike many other countries. So one can feel relaxed and at ease. But please, leave the children in peace."
Last week, 40 human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, sent a joint letter to leading sponsors of the Olympics, asking them to "take a clear stand" against the discrimination and "serious rights abuses" in Russia.
"We know it must surely concern you, as it deeply concerns all of us, that since being selected as the host country for the Winter Olympics, the Russian government has intensified its assault on the human rights of its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens," the letter said, continuing:
"Russian citizens and foreigners are banned by law from publicly supporting equality for LGBT people. Activists and journalists who have sought to investigate and denounce such human rights abuses have been secretly recorded, harassed and deported from Russia. LGBT Russians have effectively been pushed to the margins of society and are now forced to live with daily threats to their safety in a country that is promoting state-sanctioned homophobia and transphobia. These threats come in the form of kidnappings, torture, random acts of violence, and bomb threats."
The letter — distributed to CEOs at companies including Coca Cola, General Electric, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, Samsung and Visa — urged sponsors to speak out against Russia’s anti-gay 'propaganda' law and ask the International Olympic Committee (IOC) "to undertake systemic reforms to monitor and prevent human rights abuses in future host countries."
The letter also outlines abuses beyond anti-LGBT discrimination, including "exploitation of workers on Olympic venues" and "intimidation and harassment of journalists and activists" seeking to document them.
The Olympics begin Friday in Sochi.
"Nobody is more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you've been seeing in Russia," President Barack Obama said last summer. "And one of the things I'm really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze."