Zone for minority fans at Russia World Cup forced to move as activists suspect hidden hand

Fifa chief member associations officer Joyce Cook (left), and former Canadian soccer player Karina LeBlanc (centre) attending the opening ceremony for Diversity House in Moscow on June 14, 2018. The owners of the building that was to host the Diversi
Fifa chief member associations officer Joyce Cook (left), and former Canadian soccer player Karina LeBlanc (centre) attending the opening ceremony for Diversity House in Moscow on June 14, 2018. The owners of the building that was to host the Diversity House in St Petersburg told organisers they were withdrawing their cooperation. PHOTO: REUTERS

ST PETERSBURG (AFP) - A space for gay and ethnic minority football fans in St Petersburg during the football World Cup in Russia was forced to relocate at the last minute in a move activists believe was politically motivated.

The owners of the building that was set to host Diversity House, where fans could meet and watch matches, told the organisers days ahead of the opening that they were withdrawing their co-operation.

Piara Powar, director of the international anti-discrimination network Fare that is overseeing the project, said the move was "familiar" to rights groups in the country's second-biggest city.

"They recognise it as the method through which the city authorities shut down activities which do not conform to their political outlook," he said in a statement on Saturday (June 16).

He said the last-minute pullout appeared to be a "political attack of the kind that shows how debates about human rights are curtailed by powerful conservative political forces in Russia."

Powar told AFP last month that the network had sought assurances from the Russian authorities that Diversity Houses in both Moscow and St Petersburg would be allowed to go ahead during the World Cup.

Local organiser Elena Belokurova told AFP the group had found a new location in the centre of St Petersburg and it was already open.

She said there had been no threats from the owners of the building where the project was originally planned, near the city's main fan zone.

The Moscow Diversity House opened last week and has been hosting events in the city centre.

British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell was briefly arrested last week for a one-man protest near Red Square against President Vladimir Putin's record on gay rights.

Violence against gays and homophobic rhetoric in the country regularly make global headlines.