LATEST: Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has been released after being arrested in Moscow for staging a one-man protest near Red Square.
It is a country recently ranked among the worst in Europe for gay rights, where men and women in the LGBT+ community have been attacked and isolated. So it’s understandable that many people in the gay community are on high alert as tens of thousands of people make their way to Russia for the World Cup.
Though homosexuality was officially decriminalised in Russia in 1993, a more recent law banning “gay propaganda” has extended the state’s powers to arrest and detain people in the gay community, often on very dubious charges.
With extreme Russian football fans infamous for homophobia, and powerful police forces that have been known to target LGBT people, the Football Supporter’s Federation has released a special leaflet advising fans on how they can protect themselves during matches.
One of the main pieces of advice warns against travelling to areas of the North Caucus such as Chechnya, where authorities are accused of detaining and torturing gay men in unofficial prisons. No matches are set to be played in the area.
The advice also notes that going to the toilet is likely to be a issue for trans fans, suggesting they “judge the situation on a case by case basis”.
“If you do not feel safe, try and find a fellow fan to accompany you,” the guide reads. “If there is a disabled toilet and you are alone, that could be the safest option.”
Up to 10,000 Brits are expected to make the journey to Russia for the month-long tournament. Underscoring concerns, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell was detained in Moscow after staging a one-man protest near Red Square on Wednesday.
Tatchell was standing near the statue of Marshal Zhukov close to the Kremlin holding a poster which read: “Putin fails to act against Chechnya torture of gay people,” before several police officers moved in to apprehend him.
Tatchell was released after spending one hour and 40 minutes in police custody, he said on Thursday.
Speaking from Moscow, Tatchell said: “Senior officers were stern but the apprehending officer very helpful, friendly and polite. I presume I was well treated, partly because I am a UK citizen and because a senior British Embassy consular official, Colin Wells, contacted the police. I guess the Russians also did not want to be seen as being heavy-handed during the World Cup.”
Tatchell said he was required to appear in court on 26 June for violating a federal law that prohibits “all protests near the Kremlin and during the World Cup”, but had sought to have the proceeding voided.
The campaigner said he had been told he would be allowed to return to the UK on Monday as planned.
Earlier, Tatchell defended his right to protest, saying: “I was exercising my lawful right to protest, under the Russian constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and the right to protest in Articles 29 and 31.
“A one-person protest, which is what I did, requires no permission from the authorities and the police.”
He added: “Getting arrested is standard for Russians who protest for LGBT+ rights or against corruption, economic injustice and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its bombing of civilians in Syria.”
Tatchell said he had been treated more leniently than Russian protesters because of his British passport and said he was “awed” by their courage.
On his reasons for staging the protest, Tatchell said before his arrest: “Little action has been taken by the Russian government and police to crack down on far right extremists who target LGBT+ people for violent and humiliating assaults – including the instigators of the current threats to bash and stab LGBT+ football fans at the World Cup.”
He said it was his sixth visit to the country, where he said he has twice been arrested during protests and suffered brain damage after being attacked by Russian neo-Nazis in 2007.
Speaking in the Commons last month, foreign secretary Boris Johnson said it was “on the honour” of the Russians to ensure the safety of foreign fans for the duration, while shadow sports minister Rosena Allin-Khan noted that “violence and abuse” continues to be perpetrated against LGBT+ people in the country.
But the guidebook suggests that there is likely to be an additional focus on deterring homophobia during the football tournament, adding: “Russia will want the World Cup to go without a hitch”.
In March, former Chelsea midfielder Alexei Smertin - who has been named the Russian FA’s anti-discrimination officer - told the BBC the waving of rainbow flags would not be prohibited during the World Cup, despite the fact this would fly in the face of the country’s propaganda law.
Leanne MacMillan, director of international campaigns for LGBT+ charity Stonewall, said fans should be “vigilant” and follow the latest Foreign and Commonwealth guidance.
“While the World Cup focuses a spotlight on Russia, it’s important support for the local LGBT community goes beyond the event itself,” she added.
“Fans who want to stand up for LGBT people in Russia can help by raising awareness of what’s been happening – particularly in Chechnya - and supporting the work of local activists and network groups like the Russian LGBT Network.”
Check here for the latest Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice.