Islam Abdullabeckov and his boyfriend Felix Glyukman were in their Moscow apartment Sunday afternoon when they saw reports of the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. They were shocked and saddened.
The next day, the young couple went to the American embassy in Moscow with a candle and a sign that said “LOVE WINS.”
The instant they laid the sign down on the pavement, however, a policeman scooped it up.
Then they were arrested.
Police accused them of holding an unauthorized demonstration, a charge that can bring serious fines and even imprisonment in Russia.
“We weren’t going to hold a political” protest, Abdullabeckov told The Washington Post on Wednesday morning via Facebook messages. “We just wanted to put a poster and light candles.”
He said he and Glyukman were taken to a police station and questioned for three hours before being released. If convicted, they each face up to 10 days in prison or a fine of 60,000 rubles ($900), he said.
Their arrests are a stark reminder that, even as the world comes together to mourn the Orlando massacre victims, LGBT rights are also under everyday threat in countries across the globe.
“Homophobia is the official policy of the Putin state,” Abdullabeckov said.
Although homosexuality is not illegal in Russia, gay men and women face broad discrimination. In 2013, the country passed a controversial law that banned “gay propaganda,” public speech or demonstrations equating gay lifestyles to straight ones, saying it may influence children.
In January, lawmakers debated a bill that would have banned public displays of affection among gays and punished couples for kissing or even holding hands on the street with a fine or a two-week jail sentence.
It was in this climate that Abdullabeckov and Glyukman met a year ago.
In March of 2015, Glyukman, an art student, posted a powerful video to YouTube in which he came out as gay.
Abdullabeckov, who works for a media group that includes Russian newspaper RBK Daily, saw the video and was overwhelmed.
“I watched and wrote him,” Abdullabeckov told The Post. “We met on the Internet.”
Monday was their first anniversary.
They spent it together — under interrogation.
Abdullabeckov said he and Glyukman felt “terrible” about the Orlando shooting. They were stunned that “even in the U.S. because of their sexual orientation [people] could be killed.”
The day after the massacre, the couple went to the American embassy, where people had begun laying flowers and signs in an impromptu memorial to the Orlando victims.
“There were many people and many flowers and candles,” Glyukman told Australian broadcaster SBS. “The policeman grabbed the poster and told us we have to leave, but Islam said we didn’t want to and [the officer] grabbed him, and put us in the car.”
A video of the arrest shows the officer pulling Abdullabeckov by the arm as the young man says “Nyet, nyet, nyet.” When Abdullabeckov is put into the police cruiser, Glyukman joins him.
Glyukman posted photos to Facebook showing them sitting in the cop car, next to a baby-faced officer.
“We tried to leave flowers and a sign at the embassy,” Glyukman wrote in the caption. “We did not succeed.”
“Why arrested?” a friend commented.
“My poster,” he answered. “They didn’t like it.”
“Give them the Anglo-Russian dictionary,” the friend said, implying the police officers didn’t know what the sign said.
“This is completely surreal,” Abdullabeckov wrote.
He told The Post he and Glyukman did nothing wrong.
“What have we done to get us arrested?” he said. “We are now crushed and feel not the best way.”
Initially, they two were accused of holding an unauthorized rally or demonstration, a serious offense that, under recently passed laws, can result in several years in prison or fines of tens of thousands of dollars — a crippling amount in a country where the average yearly salary is about $8,500.
Their lawyer, however, told BuzzFeed that they were eventually charged with the lesser offense of “holding a public event without making prior notice.”
“Policemen there tried not to let people use any LGBT symbolics, and when the guys came to the embassy and put down their banner they were immediately arrested and brought to Presnenskiy police station,” attorney Sergey Panchenko said. “I think police itself is not really interested in taking it to court, by the way. We have video evidence with us to prove the guys didn’t hold any rally or demonstration.”
Neither Russian police nor the Department of Interior Affairs for Moscow responded to a request for comment, BuzzFeed reported.
Despite their arrest, Abdullabeckov said they intend to go back to the embassy again today or tomorrow to leave their poster and candle honoring the Orlando victims.
“We are not afraid,” he said. “This is our country.”
Read more about the mass shooting in Orlando: