The Kuibyshevsky District Court of St. Petersburg Liquidates Charitable Foundation Sphere

On April 21, 2022, the judge of the Kuibyshev District Court of St. Petersburg, Tatiana Kuzovkina, issued a decision to liquidate Charitable Foundation Sphere.

Vitaly Isakov, lawyer from the Institute of Law and Public Policy, spoke at the court hearing on behalf of Sphere. 

The plaintiff, representative of the Russian Ministry of Justice, stated in deliberations that the Ministry is not a “punitive body,” it always gives an opportunity to correct violations and monitors the transparency of the work of NGOs. According to the representative, the foundation, under the guise of charity, “carried out political activities using foreign property, which does not correspond to the statutory goals.”

In closing, they highlighted that the results of the audit by the Ministry revealed that the organization’s activities are aimed at changing legislation, including the Russian Constitution, and does not correspond to any charitable goals specified under the federal law. The Ministry of Justice sees the liquidation of this organization as the only measure to curb “illegal activities.” 

In response, Isakov said that in the event of the liquidation of Sphere, a considerable  group of people would be left without protection and without a platform to share information about the LGBT community and its hardships within the state and society. 

Our official response as the Sphere team:

The decision to liquidate the fund, especially on these grounds, is absolutely unreasonable and inconsistent with the norms of the law. We consider it politically and ideologically motivated, separately noting the state’s desire to destroy the majority of civil and human rights organizations in the country.

At the moment, our services continue to provide legal, psychological, and emergency assistance to the LGBT+ community, and we will do everything possible to ensure that this work continues without interruption, regardless of the legal status of our team. We cannot leave the community without protection and support at such a difficult time. Our team has always seen it as its duty to help the community and unite it based on the principles of human rights and humanitarianism.

Sphere provides legal and psychological assistance to LGBT+ people throughout the country, supports various initiatives and organizations, provides emergency assistance in crisis situations, and is engaged in monitoring and advocacy. 

Here’s the backstory:

In the fall of 2021, the Russian Ministry of Justice began an unscheduled audit of the foundation. In the course of the audit, Sphere provided the Ministry of Justice with more than 5,000 pages of documents — the entire flow of our work over the past three years.

According to the results of the audit, which Sphere received in December of 2021, the Ministry of Justice believes that gross violations were committed by the organization. Among the claims of the Ministry of Justice is that, “all the actual activities of the organization are aimed at supporting the LGBT movement in Russia.”

According to the state agency, the constitution of the country enshrines “basic traditional family values,” and the foundation’s work is aimed at “changing the legislation and moral foundations in the Russian Federation.”

The claim for liquidation was filed with the Main Department of the Ministry of Justice on February 4, 2022, following an unscheduled inspection.

On February 9, 2022, the judge of the Kuibyshev Court, Irina Vorobyova, left the claim for the liquidation of the Sphere without movement. The judge pointed out the need to refer to the specific grounds provided for by the current legislation, through which the plaintiff — the Ministry of Justice — asks for liquidation. The arguments in this part were not presented to the court.

Judging by the case file on the court’s website, the liquidation claim was filed again on March 9, 2022, with another judge, Tatyana Kuzovkina.

The court process began on March 29, when Vitaly Isakov, a lawyer from the Institute of Law and Public Policy, and Vyacheslav Samonov, a lawyer working with Sphere, appeared at the court hearing on behalf of the foundation. The hearing was postponed on technicality until April 21st.

Due to the pressure of the authorities, many organizations that contribute to solving a wide range of human rights problems, as well as the independent media, are forced to stop their work in Russia — the news about the liquidation of the International Memorial and the Memorial Human Rights Center at the end of 2021 was especially shocking.

In many ways, a similar attempt to liquidate Sphere is an attempt by the ruling structures to eliminate the entire human rights movement, including the LGBT movement.

After the start of the unscheduled inspection concerning Sphere in November 2021, the registers of “foreign agents” got longer with the inclusion of Igor Kochetkov, the founder of Sphere, and the Russian LGBT Network, a movement whose programs are implemented by Sphere.

By the end of 2021, the Far Eastern Center for LGBT and Victims of Violence “Mayak” and the St. Petersburg LGBT initiative group “Coming Out” also got into the registers of “foreign agents.” The register of the Ministry of Justice clearly states that Mayak, Exit, and the Russian LGBT Network receive funding from Sphere – in other words, these organizations were persecuted because their connection with Sphere, which means that actions against them are easier to justify.

There is every reason to believe that this trend will continue.

At the moment, the register of “unregistered public associations that are recognized as foreign agents” consists of seven items, five of which are represented by LGBT initiatives: it seems that the authorities have created a separate list to suppress the LGBT movement, bypassing the need to name it as such directly.

Additionally, starting from November 2021, five LGBT+ activists found themselves recognized as “media-foreign agents” by the Russian Ministry of Justice.

In particular, Sphere is the initiator of a campaign to counteract the discriminatory law banning “LGBT propaganda,” which stigmatizes the LGBT+ community, creates conditions of social hostility and complicates the living conditions of many people.

In addition, Sphere has contributed to helping hundreds of LGBT+ survivors of abduction and torture in the North Caucasus, helping them to start a new life in a safe place. In 2017, when the massive nature of these crimes became known for the first time, the representatives of the foundation and its partners managed to activate the mechanisms of international investigation and draw the attention of the general public to this problem. At the same time, Russia demonstrated a complete lack of political will to recognize these crimes.

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