A judge in St. Petersburg declared the Side by Side LGBT Film Festival a “foreign agent” yesterday (May 7) and fined it 12,500 euros for not registering as required by Russia’s new Foreign Agent Law.
This is the latest of several enforcement actions based on the law, which took effect last November after President Vladimir Putin approved it last July. The law requires any non-government group that receives financial aid from abroad to register as an “organization performing the functions of a foreign agent” if it engages in political activity of any kind.
Amnesty International criticized the ruling by Magistrates Court Judge Oleg Camaldinov, which it said was “further evidence of the Russian government’s determination to curtail the freedom of association and free speech.”
The Side by Side LGBT Film Festival said its only political activity was a gay-rights campaign that occurred before the law took effect.
“The judge, even after defense lawyers had presented 4 hours of solid and incontrovertible argument, was not to be persuaded, opting to side with the local public prosecutor who produced flimsy and insubstantial evidence against the festival,” the festival said in a press release.
The press release also said that Camaldinov ignored the fact that the festival is a cultural organization, a category that is specifically exempted from the Foreign Agent Law. The festival plans to appeal the ruling.
Under the new law, about 100 non-governmental organizations in Russia may eventually be classified as foreign agents, Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov said.
The festival issued this press release:
Side by Side LGBT Film Festival: Guilty and Fined 12,500 Euros for Violating “Foreign Agents” Law, Russia
On 6 June, 2013, Saint Petersburg, Russia Magistrates Court Judge Oleg Camaldinov took a mere 10 minutes of ‘deliberation’ to declare Side by Side LGBT Film Festival guilty for not registering as a ‘foreign agent’. The judge, even after defence lawyers had presented 4 hours of solid and incontrovertible argument, was not to be persuaded opting to side with the local public prosecutor who produced flimsy and insubstantial evidence against the festival. The organization faces a fine of 12,500 Euros.
Court proceedings on the second day of trial opened with questions concerning the legality of inspections carried out against Side by Side. The prosecutor’s representative V.V Stepanchenko stated that the festivals logo was the main motivation for the checks due to the fact that it is not registered. Lawyers – Dmitry Bartenev and Sergey Golubok, refuted this proposition insisting that this was not reasonable grounds for carrying out checks into an organization and moreover according to the law the prosecutors office has no authority to initiate administrative proceedings against non-profit organizations without concrete evidence. In effect inspections against Side by Side were illegal but the Judge was to see no reason for stopping the hearing, considering the case legitimate and all reason to continue.
Accusations concerning Side by Side’s ‘political activity’ amounted to the publication of a brochure: The Worldwide LGBT Movement: Local Practices to Global Politics and participation in the social awareness campaign: “Let’s Stop the Homophobic Bill Together.” Notably, both these activities were implemented prior to the 21 November, 2012 when the law came into force. The Russian Constitution however states that new laws cannot be used against activities implemented earlier – another fact to be ignored by both prosecutor and Judge Camaldinov.
Another line of defence presented related to the organizations activities. Side by Side LGBT Film Festival is a cultural organization and the ‘Foreign Agents’ law stipulates that organizations working in the field of culture are exempted from registering. Lawyers drew attention to this fact as well as recent recommendations in a report by the High Commissioner for Cultural Rights citing the need and development of a cultural space for the LGBT community in Russia in order to promote greater tolerance and acceptance. Showing a movie, organizing a discussion or publishing information brochures should not and cannot be qualified as a ‘political activity.’
Despite these strong lines of argument the prosecutors representative V.V Stepanchenko remained muted throughout occasionally standing to read from the resolution and evidence already presented. Lawyers were left without response to important issues raised concerning both the legality of the checks and the evidence presented in court. For the Judge however it seemed enough and within a matter of 10 minutes was able to return a guilty verdict with a fine of 12,500 Euros. The decision was greeted with both shock and silence from spectators. “There is no justice!” shouted festival organizer Manny de Guerre to which the judge smiled sadly and nodded.
Side by Side LGBT Film Festival was the first to fall foul in St. Petersburg of the draconian ‘foreign agents’ law. Yesterday’s trial showed its purpose is to fight against any kind of dissent, quelling any activity – cultural or other – free thought, branding it as ‘political’.
The organizers Side by Side LGBT Film Festival will appeal to the High Court.