UPDATED: Ukraine Refuses Political Asylum To Belarusian LGBT Activist
10 October, 2017

A Ukrainian court has declined to grant political asylum to Belarusian LGBT activist Edvard Tarlecki, who organized pride parades in his home country.  

In September 2016, the State Migration Service of Ukraine refused to recognize the activist and journalist as a refugee or a person in need of additional protection. As a result, Tarlecki filed a lawsuit against the migration service with a Kyiv district administrative court.  

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Tarlecki’s asylum began over seven years ago. On August 4, 2009, the activist fled to Ukraine from his native Belarus. He immediately filed an asylum application and indicated that he had been forced to leave his country because he organized pride parades in Minsk and publicly opposed discrimination against sexual minorities. According to court files, this led to  Tarlecki being sent to a Belarusian psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia because he worked as a drag performer in clubs.  

If returned to Belarus, Tarlecki said he feared imprisonment and sexual abuse in custody. 

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However, this month, the Ukrainian court found no evidence that he faced criminal charges in Belarus or that he would be compelled to undergo undesired medical treatment in a psychiatric hospital. 

In Kyiv, Tarlecki performs drag in one of the local clubs, where he is known by his stage name Madame Zhu Zhu. Because of this, the Migration Service claims that the activist voluntarily left Belarus for career opportunities in Kyiv.

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As a result, the court upheld the Migration Service’s decision as lawful and refused to provide Tarlecki with political asylum.

Ruslana Panukhnyk, executive director of KyivPride, finds the migration service’s decision to deny Tarlecki asylum unsurprising. According to her, Ukraine is not very accepting of asylum cases on the whole. Furthermore, the Ukrainian legal system does not recognise discrimination against the LGBT community and the law is lacking when it comes to the protection of LGBT rights, she says.

However, Panukhnyk feels acceptance of LGBT people may be slowly rising in Ukrainian society. She recently attended the second Kharkiv Pride, which successfully took place on October 11 to mark International Coming Out Day. She says that, because only 5% of Ukrainian society knows an LGBT person, public events like these “are the beginnings of a big and great path to acceptance and tolerance in Ukrainian society.”

Hromadske spoke to KyivPride executive director Ruslana Panukhnyk to discuss Ukrainian society’s current attitudes toward the LGBT community.

What do you know about the Tarlecki case?

Actually, the information that you already said. I guess this case is one among numerous cases that our migration service has denied. And I’m not just talking about LGBT grounds when people are denied asylum or refugee status. As far as I know, the whole acceptance rate in Ukraine is very low – like four to seven percent of all cases filed with the migration service. I would not say that this case is politically motivated etc. I guess that is among the others in the usual practice of migration service.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Can we talk about the authorities being particularly unsympathetic to LGBT people, or rather LGBT asylum cases? Do LGBT people faces discrimination in the Ukrainian legal system as a whole?

I would say yes because the Ukrainian legal system generally does not recognise LGBT as ground for discrimination. So, LGBT people are not protected by law, because our authorities, our judicial system, our executive system like the law-enforcement system, decide whether LGBT grounds are enough to realise that the people were discriminated or not, so they decided on their own, so we don’t have any practice or any laws stating that these issues are protected.

Let’s come back to the Kharkiv rally. You were there, do you have anything to add to what I said?

Yeah, of course. So I’ve been to Kharkiv because Kyiv Pride is very supportive of the regional organisations and initiatives, especially to share our experience and make whatever possible from our side, to connect regional activists to the police or the authorities in the regions. So I [took] part in the negotiations with the Kharkiv police in this case and I’m very happy that this event went successfully, peacefully, and everything went well.

Was it harder to talk to the Kharkiv police than the police in Kyiv? After all, there have been several - rather successful - pride prides in Kyiv, but there has been no such experience in Kharkiv.

Yeah, in Kharkiv this was the second public event, but the first onen on May 17 this year was not so successful. And yes, if you compare communication and negotiation with police in Kyiv now, or in 2013 when we started to organise pride parades, so the difference is huge. I would say that the police in Kharkiv are more cooperative and willing to cooperate than police in Kyiv back in 2013.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

But how does it reflect the general attitude in this society? Do you think that after LGBT events, public events have become, if not common but more common, the public attitude changes? Do people become supportive, or sympathetic, or at least non-aggressive towards open manifestations of LGBT [relations]?

Of course, because, as you already said, this public event was dedicated to the International Coming Out Day and it was intended to raise the visibility of LGBT people in Ukraine, or, in this particular case, in Kharkiv and, according to the national surveys conducted recently just at the beginning of this year, only 5% of Ukrainian know somebody who is LGBT. So only 5% know somebody who is in their near surroundings. Visibility is the key for people to understand and to accept LGBT people, so I guess [these] kinds of public events are the beginnings of a big and great path to acceptance and tolerance in Ukrainian society.

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