Gay rights activists carry rainbow flags as they march during a May Day rally in 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Russia's Supreme Court on Thursday effectively outlawed LGBTQ+ activism, in the most drastic step against advocates of gay, lesbian and transgender rights in the increasingly conservative country.

Gay rights activists carry rainbow flags as they march during a May Day rally in 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Russia's Supreme Court on Thursday effectively outlawed LGBTQ+ activism, in the most drastic step against advocates of gay, lesbian and transgender rights in the increasingly conservative country. / AP

TALLINN, Estonia — Russia's Supreme Court effectively outlawed LGBTQ+ activism on Thursday, the most drastic step against advocates of gay, lesbian and transgender rights in the increasingly conservative country.

Ruling in response to a lawsuit filed by the Justice Ministry, the court labeled what the suit called the LGBTQ+ "movement" operating in Russia as an extremist organization and banned it.

The ruling is the latest step in a decade-long crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, who has emphasized "traditional family values" during his 24 years in power.

Thursday's closed-door hearing lasted four hours. No one besides Justice Ministry representatives were allowed in, and there was no defendant. Journalists were taken into the courtroom only for the reading of the verdict by Judge Oleg Nefedov, who wore a face mask, apparently for health reasons.

The case was classified, and the ministry didn't disclose any evidence, saying only that authorities had identified "signs and manifestations of an extremist nature" in the movement it seeks to ban, including "incitement of social and religious discord."

Multiple rights activists have noted the lawsuit was lodged against a movement that is not an official entity, and that under its broad and vague definition, Russian authorities could crack down on any individuals or groups deemed to be part of it.

"In practice, it could happen that the Russian authorities, with this court ruling in hand, will enforce (the ruling) against LGBTQ+ initiatives that work in Russia, considering them a part of this civic movement," said Max Olenichev, a human rights lawyer who works with the Russian LGBTQ+ community, contacted by The Associated Press before the ruling.

The lawsuit targets activists and effectively prohibits any organized activity to defend the rights of LGBTQ+ people, Olenichev added.

Multiple Russian independent media outlets and rights groups added rainbow symbols to their logos on social media in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.

"This is a political order, and they are following it"

Amnesty International called the ruling "shameful and absurd," warning it could lead to a blanket ban on LGBTQ+ organizations, violate freedom of association, expression and peaceful assembly, and lead to discrimination.

"It will affect countless people, and its repercussions are poised to be nothing short of catastrophic," said Marie Struthers, the group's director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

A Russian Orthodox Church spokesman praised the ruling, telling the state-run RIA Novosti news agency that it was "a form of moral self-defense by society" from efforts to push "the Christian idea of marriage and family from the public and legal realms."

The Justice Ministry has not commented.

Before the ruling, leading Russian human rights groups filed a document with the court that called the lawsuit "anti-lawful," discriminatory and a violation of the constitution and international human rights treaties that Moscow has signed. Some LGBTQ+ activists said they tried to become a party to the lawsuit but were rebuffed by the court.

"We tried to find some legal logic in this absurdity," said Igor Kochetkov, a human rights advocate and founder of the Russian LGBT Network rights group.

"We tried to appeal to the Supreme Court's common sense and say: 'Look, here I am, a person who's been involved in LGBT activism for years, who's been promoting these ideas — ideas of defending human rights, mind you — and this lawsuit concerns me,'" he told the AP.

"They don't want any trial," Kochetkov added. "They do not want to address this matter. This is a political order, and they are following it. It is the end of any kind of justice in Russia, by and large."

In 2013, the Kremlin adopted the first legislation restricting LGBTQ+ rights, known as the "gay propaganda" law, banning any public endorsement of "nontraditional sexual relations" among minors. In 2020, constitutional reforms pushed through by Putin to extend his rule by two more terms also included a provision to outlaw same-sex marriage.

After sending troops into Ukraine in 2022, the Kremlin ramped up a campaign against what it called the West's "degrading" influence, in what rights advocates saw as an attempt to legitimize the war. That same year, the authorities adopted a law banning propaganda of "nontraditional sexual relations" among adults, also, effectively outlawing any public endorsement of LGBTQ+ people.

Another law passed this year prohibited gender transitioning procedures and gender-affirming care for transgender people. The legislation prohibited any "medical interventions aimed at changing the sex of a person," as well as changing one's gender in official documents and public records. It also amended Russia's Family Code by listing gender change as a reason to annul a marriage and adding those "who had changed gender" to a list of people who can't become foster or adoptive parents.

"Do we really want to have here, in our country, in Russia, 'Parent No. 1, No. 2, No. 3' instead of 'mom' and 'dad?'" Putin said in September 2022. "Do we really want perversions that lead to degradation and extinction to be imposed in our schools from the primary grades?"

Activists won't know what's now illegal until they get charged

Authorities reject accusations of LGBTQ+ discrimination. Earlier this month, Russian media quoted Deputy Justice Minister Andrei Loginov as saying that "the rights of LGBT people in Russia are protected" legally. He was presenting a report on human rights in Russia to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, arguing that "restraining public demonstration of nontraditional sexual relationships or preferences is not a form of censure for them."

Olenichev said the Supreme Court ruling ushers in a number of restrictions, such as participating in, aiding or funding extremist organizations; publicly using certain logos and symbols related with them; or publicly endorsing ideas they propagate. But while a court-mandated ban for an extremist organization to operate comes into force immediately, these restrictions will start 30 days after the ruling, if a defendant doesn't appeal.

The exact nature of these restrictions — such as which symbols will be banned — remains unclear, because the case is classified, and will only become apparent in the first legal actions brought against activists, Olenichev added, although violating them exposes people to prosecution and potential prison terms.

This will likely lead to a decrease in legal, psychological and other aid and support for LGBTQ+ people in Russia get from rights groups and grassroots initiatives, he said, and make the community itself and its needs less visible.

"The authorities are doing everything for the LGBT agenda to disappear from the public square," he added.

Many people will see leaving Russia before they become targeted as the only option, said Olga Baranova, director of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT+ Initiatives.

"It is clear for us that they're once again making us out as a domestic enemy to shift the focus from all the other problems that are in abundance in Russia," Baranova told AP.

Others are determined to stay and continue working with the LGBTQ+ community.

Dasha Yakovleva said Feminitive, a women's group she co-founded, is the only group in Russia's westernmost Kaliningrad region that, in addition to advocating for women's rights, offers support to LGBTQ+ people at the moment and will "look for ways" to continue.

She told AP that she sees value in helping LGBTQ+ people exercise their rights.

"Since our state doesn't intend to do that, then it's the task for our civil society to try to be an island of safety, of advocacy, a connection with the international community," Yakovleva said

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