Kazakhstan_gay_Kiss_poster_bannedA poster depicting a gay kiss has been banned and the agency behind the ad has been unjustly targeted by a Kazakhstan court, says Human Rights Watch.

The court in Almaty, the country’s largest city, awarded thousands of dollars in damages in a class-action lawsuit against Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan for a poster depicting two male cultural icons kissing.

It also ordered the agency to issue a public apology and froze its assets until the award is paid.

Wednesday’s draconian ruling will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and creativity in Kazakhstan and condones homophobia and prejudice, warned Human Rights Watch.

“Kazakhstan’s courts should be fair and impartial when asked to censor the right to free expression just because an image is offensive to some or causes discomfort,” said the organisation’s Central Asia researcher, Mihra Rittmann. “With this punitive ruling, the court has chosen to trample on free speech in Kazakhstan.”

A group of 34 people sought 34 million tenge (approximately US$187,900) in moral damages for offence caused by the advertising agency’s poster showing the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin kissing Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbaiuly.

Havas had submitted the poster for a design competition. The plaintiffs claimed that the poster was “unethical” and offensive to the honour and dignity of both men’s descendants, as well as to all people who respect their art.

In its ruling, the court stated it “considers the plaintiffs’ demands that the defendants issue a public apology legitimate, given that the poster leaves a lasting, negative impression amongst a large group of people toward the memory of Kurmangazy Sagyrbaiuly,” and that the amount of 1 million tenge for each plaintiff is “proportionate to the harm caused.”

Dariya Khamitzhanova, director of Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan, told Human Rights Watch that none of the plaintiffs attended any of the hearings, nor did they respond to her efforts to reach out to them to apologize. She intends to appeal the ruling.

“Kazakhstan’s judiciary has an opportunity to set aside this unjustified ruling and show it won’t let prejudice rule the day,” said Rittmann.

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