On 12th November, 2020 the XIII Side by Side LGBT Film Festival was set to start in Saint Petersburg, Russia. This year a hybrid version of the festival, with both on and offline screenings and events, was planned in order to cope with COVID-19 restrictions.

10 minutes, however, before the opening ceremony was to start the venue, Palma, was descended upon by officers from the Federal Service of Consumer Rights and Welfare, bolstered by an extraordinarily large body of heavy-handed police officers who not only blocked the entrance to the venue, but cordoned off nearby streets.

Citing the reason behind the unplanned visit was to check measures in relation to COVID-19. Following a short inspection and even before any explanation or indication of possible violations, police officers aggressively demanded audience members to evacuate the premises. A further 2 hours were taken by the officers to draw up documentation relating to supposed violations and a statement was taken from a so-called “witness” (believed to be a plant sent by the opposition). The festival organising committee categorically denies the violations and will argue the case in court (probably set for some time this week).

While the situation was unfolding inside the venue, activities outside were also developing at a rapid pace. A large group of protestors from the so-called Russian Anti-LGBT Movement (an openly extremist group promoting racist and fascist ideology) had gathered, exhibiting aggressive behaviour and distributing leaflets. Earlier in the week Side by Side had been informed by this potential provocation from an inside source. This information had been passed on to the police informing them of the planned protest and the intent to falsify passports and send underage persons to the festival which would be in violation of the “propaganda law of homosexuality to minors.” The police however failed to act on this information, instead permitting the demonstration, which was in fact violation of the law relating to public gatherings.

In the immediate preparatory period and days leading up to the event organisers of the festival, as well as venue Palma had been faced with a barrage of questioning from the prosecutor’s office and police departments. Openly, admitting to be behind the campaign against the festival is the notorious Russian politician, aggressor and hater ***** (we will refrain from printing the name in order to limit further promotion).

Furthermore, festival organisers have received death threats and threats of physical violence if they do not comply to demands of removing websites, social media and close down the Side by Side organisation.

Despite under-hand measures, illegal activities of extremist groups, exploitation of positions of power by certain individuals, Side by Side LGBT Film Festival will continue to exercise the right to gather, to give people the freedom of choice to access information, participate in debate and intellectual thought.

We call on all those who share our views, value human rights to support our festival, share information and not allow the repression of a peaceful, law-abiding event to go unwitnessed and without due legal redress.

The court hearing should take place this week and fines are potentially between 200,000 - 500,000 Rubles (2,200 - 5,500 Euros).