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Horrific murder fuels fears of rising homophobia in Russia

Members of the Russian gay community and gay rights activists attend a banned gay rally in Moscow on May 29, 2008
Members of the Russian gay community and gay rights activists from Europe hold flags during a banned gay rally in Moscow on May 29, 2008. A 23-year-old man has been tortured to death in Russia in an apparent homophobic attack, investigators said Sunday, a

A 23-year-old man has been tortured to death in Russia in an apparent homophobic attack, investigators said Sunday, amid growing fears by rights groups that anti-gay sentiments are on the rise in the country.

The victim's battered and naked body was found in the courtyard of an apartment building in the southern city of Volgograd on Friday morning, said a spokeswoman for regional investigators.

The young man had suffered numerous injuries, including to the genitalia, and had been sodomised with several beer bottles.

"He was raped with beer bottles and had his skull smashed with a stone," Natalia Kunitskaya, a spokeswoman for the Volgograd region branch of the Investigative Committee, told AFP.

She confirmed the attack was believed to have been a hate crime, in a rare admission from Russian law enforcement agencies on the sensitive issue of homophobia in the country.

Two men aged 22 and 27 have been detained in connection with the attack, the Moscow-based Investigative Committee said in a statement on Saturday. One of the suspects has a criminal history, investigators said.

The victim was drinking with the two men, apparently while celebrating Victory Day which Russia marks on May 9, they said.

Regional investigator Andrei Gapchenko told Echo of Moscow radio on Saturday that two men started beating the victim after he told them he was gay.

The Investigative Committee's tersely-worded statement said investigators had opened a murder probe, without commenting on possible motives for the killing.

The attack comes at a time when rights groups are already worried about growing discrimination against homosexuals as President Vladimir Putin seeks to play up traditional values in a bid to rally support during his third term in office.

Putin, who prides himself on his macho image, has repeatedly denied that Russia was violating gay rights.

But homophobia remains widespread and socially acceptable, and almost no public figures have come out as gay.

Russian parliament is considering passing a controversial national law banning "homosexual propaganda" among minors. Critics say the bill's wording is so vague that it could be used to justify any kind of repression against gays.

The law is already in place in several regions including Saint Petersburg.

Putin also recently warned that Russia could change adoption agreements with Western countries that are legalising gay marriage, such as France.

Russia decriminalised homosexuality in 1993 and officially removed it from the list of psychiatric disorders in 1999.

Many ordinary Russians expressed horror at the Volgograd murder.

"I am wondering whether those State Duma deputies who... are now adopting a law against homosexual propaganda realise that these beer bottles have essentially been planted by them?" film critic Alexander Timofeevsky said on Facebook.

Nikolai Alexeyev, head of Gay Russia, a group advocating for gay rights, expressed concern that the recent legislative initiatives could be fuelling intolerance.

"Homophobic hysteria is being increasingly promoted in Russia," he told AFP.

He said attacks against homosexuals are widespread in the country but are almost never investigated as hate crimes.

"Slapping a taboo on many aspects of human sexuality is a great way to build a dysfunctional society impregnated with hatred and is used both by Putin and Muslim extremists," outspoken anti-Kremlin observer Yulia Latynina wrote in opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

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