A court in Kazakhstan has awarded thousands of dollars in damages against an advertising agency for a poster depicting two male cultural icons kissing. The court hearing the class-action lawsuit brought by 34 people who claimed to be morally offended also required the agency to issue a public apology.

Lawyers sought 34 million tenge (about £116,700) in damages for offence caused by the advertising agency’s poster showing the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin kissing Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbaiuly. The agency, Havas Worldwide Kazakhstan, 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.

‘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 Mihra Rittmann, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. ‘With this punitive ruling, the court has chosen to trample on free speech in Kazakhstan.’ She added that the ruling would have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and creativity in Kazakhstan, condoning homophobia and prejudice

In its ruling the court stated 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, the advertising agency that was sued, 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 apologise. She intends to appeal the ruling.