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Moscow - US President Barack Obama was set on Friday to meet Russian gay rights activists after the G20 summit, in a strong symbol of US support for the community amid a furore over an “anti-gay” Russian law.
The gay rights activists will be among a group of Russian civil society members Obama meets just before he takes off from Saint Petersburg after the two-day G20 summit hosted by President Vladimir Putin, where the two leaders had not formally met or even yet had a one-on-one conversation.
“We want this meeting to be an example for the Russian president,” said Alexandra Savelyeva of the organisation Coming Out, planning to tell Obama about her group's work to raise awareness of discrimination against sexual and gender minorities and provide them with psychological and legal aid.
Russia has faced outrage from rights groups and gay communities in the West over a law signed by Putin in June that imposes fines for distributing “propaganda” about homosexuality to minors.
Critics have said that the vaguely written legislation would punish even holding hands in public for gays and plunge gay teens into an information vacuum.
Obama met with rights activists in 2009, when he came to Moscow for a breakthrough summit with then-president Dmitry Medvedev, but this time the White House specifically reached out to gay activists for the event.
“The fact of this meeting is itself important,” said Igor Kochetkov, the head of the LGBT Network (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender), adding that now “the discussion of human rights is impossible without the discussion of the rights of the LGBT community.”
Putin said in an interview on Tuesday that he would not mind meeting with gay activists himself if they express “initiative”, adding that he “works with such people and even awards them medals.”
As the G20 world leaders discussed economic matters in their second session, held just outside Saint Petersburg in a government residence in Strelna, a small group of gay activists staged a heavily policed protest in the city centre.
“Politics is here, not in Strelna,” said some of the signs held up by the group picketing in the historic Field of Mars park, surrounded by hundreds of riot police.
In an image that has become familiar in Russia, a rival picket was organised nearby by some Orthodox activists who performed religious psalms in chorus.
Such demonstrations regularly descend into violence but on Friday police stood between the two groups and put all gay activists on a bus after the rally to ensure their safety.
“They are behaving calmly today because of the summit,” said Natalia Tsimbalova, an activist holding a rainbow flag. “Despite what Putin says, the rights of gays are violated, there is discrimination,” she told AFP.
That Obama is meeting LGBT activists is “very symbolic”, said Pavel Chikov, another activist going to the discussion with the US leader.
Chikov heads Agora, a group of human rights lawyers that has also defended people hurt in anti-gay clashes.
He said he plans to tell Obama about mounting pressure on non-governmental organisations in Russia, most of which faced police raids and warnings from prosecutors regarding a law passed last year branding groups that receive foreign grants “foreign agents”.
“I think we must use all opportunities to attract attention to the human rights situation in Russia,” he said.
Chikov, who met with Obama during his state visit to Moscow in 2009, said the atmosphere had markedly changed since the US and Russia pledged to “reset” ties.
“That meeting happened in the romantic 'reset' period,” he told AFP.
“The context is different now.” - AFP