MOSCOW - Human Rights Watch sounded the alarm Monday over the rising number of homophobic attacks in Russia, slamming Vladimir Putin's government for "inaction" and urging a crackdown on hate crimes.
The US-based rights group said homophobic attacks increased in Russia after Putin signed a hugely controversial law banning "gay propaganda" to minors.
"All over Russia there has been an increase in attacks by vigilante groups and individuals against LGBT people in the past two years," the watchdog said in a report released in Moscow on Monday.
"Instead of publicly denouncing anti-LGBT violence and rhetoric, Russia's leadership has remained silent."
The study gathered testimony from 78 victims of homophobic crime, detailing the lack of support they received from the Russian legal system.
In 2013, Putin signed a law banning the so-called "propaganda" of gay relationships to minors, despite an outcry from rights groups, Western governments and celebrities including Madonna.
The law "effectively legalises discrimination," Human Rights Watch said, and "coincided with a ratcheting up of homophobic rhetoric in state media and an increase in homophobic violence around the country."
'Burn their hearts'
The report quoted prominent news anchor Dmitry Kiselyov as saying on state television last year: "I think that just imposing fines on gays for homosexual propaganda among teenagers is not enough.
"They should be banned from donating blood, sperm. And their hearts, in case of a car accident, should be buried in the ground or burned as unsuitable for the continuation of life."
Gays, lesbians and trans-gender people in Russia endure stigma and often get called "paedophiles," "perverts" or abnormal, the watchdog said.
One of the victims interviewed for the report, a 28-year-old transgender woman, was assaulted in Saint Peterburg last year by attackers who pulled out two of her toenails with pliers.
Another LGBT activist lost his sight in one eye after being shot with an airgun by masked attackers who called him a "faggot" in Russia's second city last year.
Police have failed to identify the attackers and classified the crime as hooliganism.
Another victim had his jaw broken in two places. "Before they let me go, they asked me, 'Do you know what people have always done to gays in Russia?" the watchdog quoted him as saying. "They impaled gays!'"
Only three complaints of homophobic violence out of 44 detailed in the report led to a prosecution, HRW said, stressing that authorities were tolerating discrimination against gays.
"The usual response is that these are not hate crimes because most Russians hate gays, therefore it's normal to hate them and beat them up," said Ksenia Kirichenko, a coordinator at Coming Out, an advocacy group.
Tanya Cooper, a Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch, added: "Russian law enforcement agencies have the tools to prosecute homophobic violence, but they lack the will to do so."
The rights group, whose report is based on 94 interviews from 16 cities and towns, also detailed stories of people who had lost jobs at universities or schools or had to leave the country altogether.
The report also raised the alarm on the appearance of vigilante groups that sprang up in a number of Russian cities in late 2012.
Members of the groups sometimes create profiles on gay dating sites and arrange fake dates, so they can humiliate the victims and put videos of them online.
The watchdog reiterated its call for the Kremlin to drop the anti-propaganda law.
"It encourages people to think that LGBT people are second-class citizens, that it's ok to beat them up," Cooper told AFP.
Since returning to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012, Putin has pushed an increasingly conservative agenda, seeking to promote Russia as the antithesis of the West.
As tensions with Brussels spiralled over Ukraine this year, some of Putin's staunchest supporters took to calling Europe "Gayropa", a combination of Russian words "Yevropa" and "Gay."
Putin has repeatedly dismissed accusations that gays and lesbians are persecuted in Russia.
He said this month the country did not "intend to persecute people of some non-traditional orientation," using a phrase meaning "gay."
Russia decriminalised homosexuality in 1993 but homophobia remains socially unacceptable, and almost no public figures have come out as gay.