In what lawyers are describing as an attack on LGBTQ rights in Russia, gay men who have fathered children with surrogate mothers face arrest as part of an investigation into child trafficking.

Surrogacy is legal in Russia but has come under fire from conservative lawmakers and the Orthodox church. Police arrested a number of fertility doctors earlier this year and have accused them of “child trafficking” in an ongoing case.

State news agency TASS recently quoted an unnamed official saying that investigators intend to widen their investigation into surrogacy to include single fathers, whom the official assumed would be gay.

“They are planning to arrest more suspects, including single Russian men who used surrogate mothers to have babies,” the official said, claiming it was illegal for gay men to have children in this way.

The cases are being scrutinized by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation.

The anonymous source’s words have not yet been supported by official statements, but their comments appear to be a warning that the authorities are gearing up to investigate some of the most intimate aspects of citizens’ lives.

State investigators have jailed seven people and placed three children in state care, following the death by natural causes of a newborn baby in an apartment near Moscow in January. Authorities established that the apartment was home to other babies also conceived by surrogates and several nannies were reportedly looking after them while their intended parents completed paperwork before being able to take them home abroad.

Reports about a “suspicious apartment” appeared on Russian television and the babies were put in a care home, and the inquiry was expanded to include other cases of surrogacy and organized human trafficking resulting in death.

Several people have been arrested and at least ten, including doctors and two nannies, have been charged. Most work for the company Rosjurconsulting, which specializes in reproductive law and medically assisted reproduction, or for the European Surrogacy Center in Russia (ECSM), which provides a number of services, including medical assistance for in vitro fertilization to surrogate mothers.

Lawyer Igor Trunov, who is representing the parents in the case, said authorities are attempting to link parenthood with sexual orientation. “There is no law restricting gay men to be donors and have their kids by surrogacy,” he said. “I know the father who was already questioned by investigators as a witness in this case. But he can easily be turned into an accused one.”

A public petition to stop the criminal investigation of the arrested medical staff has been signed by 7,000 people.

Russian law explicitly allows IVF treatments for couples and single women. Surrogacy legislation in Russia is ambiguous — neither permitting nor prohibiting the practice for single men. However, the principle of single fathers parenting via surrogacy has already been successfully defended hundreds of times in Russian courts.

Gay father Alexander (not his real name), from Moscow, recently told BBC Russian that he fled Russia with his six-month-old son the day after the TASS report was published.

“I don’t know when I will be back,” he said. “In our country, no matter how right you are, to prove your innocence before the state is not even stupid, but dangerous.”

Olga Okhotnikova from the Saint-Petersburg based LGBTQ rights organization Coming Out, which campaigns for equality in Russia and provides families with legal and psychological support, says single fathers have become scapegoats in a long-running campaign to enforce traditional values. State media often present the idea of gay rights as a western import that poses an existential threat to Russia while portraying the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, as a defender of “traditional values.”

“When a single father raises a child it is suspicious, whether he is gay or not,” said Okhotnikova. “But if he is gay, or if it is a gay couple, people always equate them to pedophiles. Those stereotypes are alive because people don’t understand how LGBTQ families work. If they don’t know something and are afraid of it, they are easy to manipulate. This is how our state advocates traditional values, by manipulation.”

While polling data suggests younger generations are increasingly tolerant towards the LGBTQ community, a controversial bill introduced in 2013 outlawed the so-called “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.” In July this year, a change to the constitution defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, further setting back hopes for marriage equality for LGBTQ populations.

Konstantin Svitnev, a Russian lawyer and the CEO of Rosjurconsulting, is the main suspect in the ongoing investigation into surrogacy and organized human trafficking. During a recent telephone conversation, he told me that he is currently based abroad and is too afraid to come back to Russia. “Many people in Russia believe all single men are homosexuals which equates them to pedophiles. I never asked my clients for their sexual orientation, it’s not our business. If he wants to have a child my job is to help him.” 

Coda Story has seen a transcript of the interrogation of a doctor arrested in conjunction with the death of the newborn baby in January. Investigators asked pointedly whether the doctor had noticed “signs of homosexuality” in one of his clients.

Rights experts are concerned any case against the surrogate fathers could worsen already rampant discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. 

“This criminal case can lead to even greater secrecy of LGBTQ-families,” said Max Olenichev, legal adviser to Coming Out.

“The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation uses this homosexuality thing against the fathers on purpose, to gather the support of the homophobic part of society,” he continued. “But I think the desire to become a parent, even in such uncertainty, is much stronger than the fear of government interference.”