Help site for Russian teens faces 'gay propaganda' ban

MOSCOW (AFP) - The founder of a Russian website set up to support gay, lesbian and transgender teenagers said on Wednesday she had been charged under a controversial law banning gay "propaganda" aimed at minors.

Ms Yelena Klimova told AFP she could be forced to close her social networking site, Children 404, and faces a large fine if found guilty.

Thousands of Russian teenagers use the site to post heart-rending accounts about realising they are gay and their experiences of coming out to family, friends and teachers.

"They have drawn up charges against me. They said the court hearing will be in a couple of weeks or a month," Ms Klimova told AFP on Wednesday.

The 25-year-old journalist is the latest Russian to be charged under the new ban on the promotion of homosexuality to minors, which President Vladimir Putin signed into law last summer, despite opposition from rights activists.

Three people have already been prosecuted under the law, which has provoked international criticism and protests over Russia's hosting of the Winter Olympics, including calls for a boycott.

Similar regional laws had already been enacted in Russia, where homosexuality is often equated with paedophilia.

On Wednesday, gay rights group All Out organised protests in 19 cities around the world, urging sponsors to "break their silence" on the controversial legislation.

The investigation into Ms Klimova was launched by Mr Vitaly Milonov, a lawmaker in Saint Petersburg who is one of the law's most fervent supporters.

"I initiated a check into the site Children 404 because parents of children wrote to me sounding the alarm. On this site, people told children that sodomy is normal, that you can give it a try," Mr Milonov told AFP.

Gay rights groups criticised the decision to prosecute Ms Klimova.

The head of the Russian LGBT Network Igor Kochetkov said the group considered it "unlawful persecution of a journalist and a defender of children's rights".

Children 404 is followed by more than 16,000 teenagers on Russia's most popular social networking site, VKontakte, and more than 3,000 on a Facebook page.

Ms Klimova said it did not make sense to call the site propaganda because teenagers wrote the content themselves.

"I never thought that our project would be prosecuted under that law," she said.

"I really don't understand how letters describing people's lives and their worries can be called propaganda."

But she said she saw only a "faint" hope of winning the case.

"I fear that either there will be a judge who is not competent in this matter, or else there will be a signal from up high saying 'this person must be found guilty'," she said.