Europe

Ukraine: City ignored rock-throwing anti-LGBT protesters

Anti-LGBT Ukrainians threw rocks to disrupt the Equality Festival planned for March 19-20, 2016.

Anti-LGBT Ukrainians threw rocks to disrupt the Equality Festival on March 19, 2016.

Homophobic violence in Lviv, Ukraine, that disrupted last weekend’s Equality Festival occurred after the mayor, city council and police ignored organizers’ pleas for help in responding to growing signs of upcoming trouble, according to the festival organizing committee and the LGBT advocacy group Insight.

They have asked the national Security Service to investigate.

The Equality Festival is not new to Ukraine. It has been held since 2014 in Kiev, focusing on a broad range of injustices. The festival, organizers say, is “a response to many cases of discrimination and violation of the rights of people belonging to various sensitive social groups: ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, LGBTQI, persons without citizenship and permanent residence, migrants, both external and, what’s especially on agenda during last two years, domestic – displaced persons from the conflict zone in the East and the Crimea.” For its opponents, however, it is only about promoting gay rights.

This year’s plan was to expand the festival out from Kiev to Lviv, Odessa and Dnepropetrovsk, offering “debates and discussions, a series of film screenings and photo exhibitions, literary evenings and concerts, inviting people who support the idea of ​​equality. And we planned exactly events like these in Lviv last weekend. Thus, in particular, the finalist of the ‘X-factor’ and the participant of the show ‘Voice of the Country’ Maria Katseva agreed to participate in a concert.”

But clergy and politicians in Lviv objected.

Logo of the Equality Festival 2016 in Lviv, Ukraine.

Logo of the Equality Festival 2016 in Lviv, Ukraine.

After receiving a warning call from the city, the Hotel Lviv, where festival organizers had reserved rooms for the event, canceled the reservation on March 18, the day before the festival was scheduled to begin. The festival was relocated to Hotel Dniester, but shortly after the program began there at noon on March 19, “radical young people in masks and balaclavas began to gather.”  The crowd grew to about 200 people by 2 p.m., many of them wearing masks.  Organizers asked for help from police, but the request was denied.  Local police officials accused the festival participants of being provocateurs and claimed that the people gathering outside the hotel were just there to meet friends. (!!)

Security companies in Lviv had refused to work for the festival, fearing confrontations with often-violent protesters from the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party.  The only security personnel on hand were five security guards whom the organizers had brought from Kiev. Ukrainian Special Forces began arriving at the hotel four hours late, at 4 p.m.

Ukrainian security forces started providing protection for Equality Festival participants only about four hours after it began -- long after anti-LGBT violence began. (Photo courtesy of The Guardian)

Ukrainian security forces did not start providing protection for Equality Festival participants until nearly four hours after the first violent anti-LGBT protesters arrived. (Photo courtesy of The Guardian)

Next, the hotel was evacuated because of a bomb threat. Exiting the hotel, festival participants were greeted with a hail of rocks and small explosives. They had to leave their belongings in the hotel as they were evacuated in two buses, which were chased on foot by protesters. No one was arrested. Police told the organizers that armed men were hunting for them in the city.

Three of the organizers were sheltered by distant acquaintances in a nearby town, then left the region that night.

Festival organizers still consider Lviv as a potentially supportive location  — “as the cultural capital of our country, there are a lot of intellectuals – it is logical that in such city we can hope for a constructive dialogue.”  They see the violence not as a reflection of the attitudes of the citizens of Lviv, but as the acts of extremist organizations.

The organizers remain resolute in their plans to continue working toward a day when discrimination and violence come to an end in Ukraine. “We will still defend the freedoms and equality for all people – without exceptions and limitations,” they say.

This is the statement from Insight and the Equality Festival’s organizing committee about the events of March 19-20:

Statement on the disruption of the Equality Festival in Lviv

On the 19th – 20th of March in Lviv there was to be held the Equality Festival, and more than 200 artists, social activists, human rights defenders and other people registered to participate in this event. The Equality Festival is held since 2014 as a response to many cases of discrimination and violation of the rights of people belonging to various sensitive social groups: ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, LGBTQI, persons without citizenship and permanent residence, migrants, both external and, what’s especially on agenda during last two years, domestic – displaced persons from the conflict zone in the East and the Crimea.

The Equality Festival is held under the auspices of the Coalition against Discrimination in Ukraine with the support of the Ombudsman’s Office of Verkhovna Rada [the parliament] of Ukraine. In two years the Equality Festival became a cultural platform, free from discrimination and prejudice and a space for artistic understanding of social processes.

Maria Katseva (Photo courtesy of YouTube)

Maria Katseva (Photo courtesy of YouTube)

This year we have planned to hold the Equality Festival not only in Kiev, but also in regions – Lviv, Odessa and Dnepropetrovsk. During the Festival, together with human rights defenders, activists and artists we hold debates and discussions, a series of film screenings and photo exhibitions, literary evenings and concerts, inviting people, who support the idea of ​​equality. And we planned exactly events like these in Lviv last weekend. Thus, in particular, the finalist of the “X-factor” and the participant of the show “Voice of the Country” Maria Katseva agreed to participate in a concert.

However, unfortunately, the Festival in Lviv was disrupted by an aggressive group of extremists. In the process of the organization of the Festival we appealed to the Lviv’s City Council and personally to the mayor Andriy Sadoviy with the request to support the Equality Festival, but we haven’t received any response. During the week before the Festival we have received numerous threats from different groups of people and individuals. In the press we have seen statements from the clergy and members of the regional and city councils, where they were calling “to fight back” the Equality Festival in Lviv. All the locations which we have agreed with for holding events denied us because of threats. All the private security companies refused in service, reasoning that they can not confront the “Svoboda” Party. We also did not receive any response from the police, whom we referred to in writing.

On 18th of March we, as the organizers of the Festival came to Lviv into a hotel “Lviv” to the rooms, which have been pre-booked and already paid for 4 days before. An hour before the settlement, we’ve got a call from the hotel administration, which denied our settlement, saying that they were warned by the City Administration not to host us. Nevertheless we arrived to the hotel to find out the circumstances. There we’ve got rude answers, that “there is no place for perverts in their hotel” and their “boiler room is resting, and you can disappear in it”.

Olena Shevchenko (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

Insight leader Olena Shevchenko (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

We started immediately looking for another hotel and a conference room and found empty seats at the hotel “Dniester”. At the same day we received a call from the Galitskiy court, which invited us to a hearing on the ban of public events in Lviv. The court hearing was scheduled for 18:00 of the same day. Of course, it was [unrealistic to expect] to find a lawyer in an hour before the hearing, so Olena Shevchenko, a Head of NGO “Insight,” went to the court by herself, with the support of three people from the community, who were not afraid to be present in the court. The court hearing continued for 6 hours with breaks. In two hours after the start of the hearings we were surrounded by 30 quite radical aggressive people in sportswear. Miraculously, Olena Shevchenko and our friends went back to the hotel unharmed.

On the next day we started the program of the Festival at 12 p.m. in the conference hall of the “Dniester” hotel. In a half an hour radical young people in masks and balaclavas began to gather near the hotel. There was no Police though we called it. There were only five security guards, whom we brought from Kiev. Two hours after the start of the Festival there were already about 200 people in black clothes and many of them in masks. We started to call in Kiev, trying to get in touch with the national police leadership. Only after 4 hours Special Forces  began to arrive to the hotel “Dniester”. The Lviv’s police leadership, in particular Mr. Zagariya, repeatedly approached to us and told that we are provocateurs, and people near the hotel just came to meet their friends there.

Anti-LGBT rock thrower in Lviv, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of The Guardian)

Anti-LGBT rock thrower in Lviv, Ukraine. (Photo courtesy of The Guardian)

Over time the police informed us that they have received a message about the explosives in the hotel and that they have to evacuate people immediately.  At this time people outside the hotel were already armed with stones and iron bars. “We were evacuated in two buses under a hail of stones and petards [small bombs or fireworks]. Two police cars were broken. People in black masks were chasing our buses about 500 meters after leaving the hotel,” – says the head of the “Insight” NGO Olena Shevchenko. “Nobody was arrested. Then we were taken to the police base and an hour later police directed us to go, wherever we want. Policemen also said that armed people in Lviv are hunting on us, but no actions were taken. After that I decided to leave the city. Without clothes and belongings, that we left in the hotel, me and two other people left to the nearest town, where we were hidden by almost strangers. They have supported and fed us. At night we went out of the region”.

In preparation for the Equality Festival in the regions, we relied on our experience in Kiev. Two previous festivals in the capital were successful, and the public reaction was positive. Of course, there were several incidents, motivated by homophobia and transphobia at the opening of the Festival, but the police have worked professionally and we were able to hold the Festival for the next three days, as we planned. Last year Lviv was chosen as the first city of the regional tour not by accident. Firstly, we have the initiative group of citizens in this city, which is working with the community of LGBT people for already 2 years and have an experience in organizing of cultural events and discussions. Together we organized a presentation of Campaign Against Discrimination in Lviv. We presented social videos on discrimination of people with disabilities and LGBTQI-community, film screenings about the women rights and people without citizenship, also presented a research of the situation of transgender people in Ukraine. Last year we held a discussion about migrants. Accordingly, the Equality Festival – is not the first event that we held in Lviv.

Map of Ukraine shows the location of Lviv in the western part of the country.

Map of Ukraine shows the location of Lviv in the western part of the country. The map dates from before the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

Secondly, one of the main topics of the Festival – internally displaced persons’ [IDPs’] rights, and there are many IDPs from the East and the Crimea in Lviv. Our organization has a shelter program – we had rented an apartment in Kiev for LGBTQI persons from the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, and we have plans to open a similar temporary shelter in Lviv. Thirdly, Lviv is considered as the cultural capital of our country, there are a lot of intellectuals – it is logical that in such city we can hope for a constructive dialogue. And we see the confirmation of this. For example, the recent scandal at one of the restaurants in the city, where the rights of people with disabilities have been violated, has caused a public dialogue among the city’s residents. Lviv’s residents advocated for the protection of the discriminated person. Concerning all this we can confidently say that the aggression against us in Lviv on 19th of March is not the position of the Lviv city, but planned actions of extremist organizations. And we appeal to the Security Service of Ukraine to investigate the events of 18th – 19th of March in Lviv.

After the Festival, we continue to receive threats and accusations in collaboration with the provocateurs. All conspiracy theories, in which we are accused, is a known strategy for blaming the victim, that she provoked her aggressor’s actions. We consider unacceptable such statements and accusations. We will still defend the freedoms and equality for all people – without exceptions and limitations. Thanks to all, who were with us and supported us these days. Especially we are grateful to our activists, who were not afraid to come to the Festival, despite numerous threats.

— Equality Festival’s Organizing Committee

— Insight’s team

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