(5 Jun 2016) Criminal gangs in Russia, operating through gay dating sites, have found a lucrative new blackmail target - homosexual men.
A St. Petersburg economist, one of their latest victims, said several men burst into the apartment where he was meeting his date. Claiming that his date was under age, they threatened to call the police and to release a video they had secretly filmed unless he paid up.
The gay rights group Vykhod, or Coming Out, said they registered 12 such attacks in St. Petersburg in 2015 and at least six more gay men have come to them so far this year. LGBT activists believe the real number is far higher and say the attacks have increased in the past two years.
Since homosexuality finds little acceptance in Russian society, many gays keep their sexual orientation hidden from their families, friends and co-workers. This makes them easy extortion targets for criminals.
Vykhod spokeswoman Nika Yuryeva said most of the recent attacks have followed the same pattern as the one seen by the St. Petersburg economist.
The "bandits," he said, felt they would "go unpunished."
Alexander Loza, a legal adviser at Positive Dialogue, an organisation that provides consulting services for gays, particularly those living with the HIV virus, has heard similar stories.
He said many gay people in Russia led a double life, unwilling to disclose their sexual orientation to their family or at work.
The activists said Russian criminals had been emboldened by a 2013 law that made it a crime to expose children to gay "propaganda," part of a Kremlin-backed effort to defend traditional family values and counter the influence of what it considers a decadent West.
Alexander Zhelezkin, who manages outreach programs at Positive Dialogue, said the law was what made him decide to become a gay activist.
"Now, my coming out is my defence," he said.
For prominent television journalist Anton Krasovsky, however, that move ended his career in Russia. He was fired after he came out on the air in 2013 and has been unable to find a job in television since.
Krasovsky said it would be a long time before gays in Russia felt protected enough to speak publicly about their sexual orientation.
The St. Petersburg economist, however, did go to the police. He spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity out of fear that his attackers, who know where he lives, would seek retribution if they learned that he had reported them.
The economist, who gave his age as "about 30," said he thought they were lying about his date being a minor. But he said the attackers beat and threatened him - and suggested they had friends in the police force who they said would lock him up on fabricated charges.
He said they demanded more than 100,000 rubles (1,500 US dollars.) One of them took his bank card and cleaned out his account, and they released him only after he agreed to transfer the balance the next day, he said.
The crime gangs who carry out such attacks are not necessarily anti-gay, but have identified a profitable niche where they feel they can operate with impunity, Loza and Yuryeva said.
St. Petersburg police spokesman Vyacheslav Stepchenko said he had not heard about these blackmail cases and said he wasn't aware of any anti-gay attacks being registered in the city in recent years.
He offered to check with the specific police station that the economist reported the crime to, but the economist didn't want to draw public attention to his case by disclosing which station it was.
Timur Bulatov, an anti-gay activist who claims to have helped get a number of teachers fired after outing them as homosexuals, said he sees no need to resort to the blackmail used by criminal gangs.
He said there was no reason to attack a "sick person" who need treatment.
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