by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
In early April, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that more than 100 gay men had been detained 'in connection with their nontraditional sexual orientation, or suspicion of such' as part of a purge.
At first there was little verification of the claims from the remote region. Chechnya isn't exactly the easiest place to verify things for several reasons, but chiefly because the government of its pro-Moscow president, Ramzan Kadyrov, is known for suppressing media and other freedoms, as well as committing human rights violations that include kidnappings and torture.
Reports that authorities in Chechnya have been rounding up Gay men were verified by human rights groups nearly one week after the Novaya Gazeta story broke. Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, both of which cite on-the-ground sources in Chechnya, confirmed that something horrendous was indeed taking place.
Human Rights Watch stated: 'The number of sources and the consistency of the stories leaves us with no doubt that these devastating developments have indeed occurred.'
According to Human Rights Watch, over 100 men have been detained, beaten and tortured. At least three detainees are reportedly dead, although Russian LGBT activists believe that number to be much, much higher.
Two television reporters, a waiter, and numerous other men ranging in age from 16 to 50 have been reported missing. In one instance, a 16-year-old boy was detained but reappeared later with severe injuries from being beaten.
Human rights activists in the area believe that authorities have been arresting and killing the missing men, because they were believed to be Gay.
A spokesman for Kadyrov denied the Novaya Gazeta report, calling the article 'absolute lies and disinformation.'
'You cannot arrest or repress people who just don't exist in the republic,' Kadyrov said through his spokesman, Alvi Karimov.
Activists believe that the arrests and murders began after a Gay rights group in the local area sought out permits to hold Gay pride parades. The group knew that it would be denied the permits but was collecting evidence it needed to build a case to take to the European Court of Human Rights.
However, according to media reports, a permit was not ultimately sought in Chechnya, but in neighboring Russia instead. The move resulted in several anti-Gay demonstrations. In fact, it is alleged that Russian president Vladimir Putin gave the order himself for local leaders to undertake a 'prophylactic sweep' and target Gay men.
Putin has never been a friend to our community. While Russia has always been seen as socially conservative when it comes to the acceptance of LGBT people, it has undoubtedly moved toward a more oppressive and dangerous place for LGBT people under Putin's watch.
Although same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults in private was decriminalized in 1993, same-sex couples and households headed by same-sex couples are ineligible for legal protections, and there are currently no laws prohibiting discrimination regarding sexual orientation.
Since 2006, numerous regions in Russia have enacted laws that restrict the distribution of materials promoting LGBT relationships to minors. The worst one yet, passed in June 2013, is a federal law criminalizing the distribution of materials among minors in support of 'nontraditional' sexual relationships. Enacted as an amendment to an existing child protection law, it has resulted in numerous arrests of LGBT Russians who publicly oppose the law, and the country has experienced a surge of homophobic propaganda, violence, and hate crimes in its wake, as the law seemingly justifies violence towards LGBT people. Putin and the law received international criticism from human rights observers, LGBT activists, and media outlets who view it as de facto means of criminalizing LGBT culture.
Back in Chechnya, however, a perfect storm is brewing for Gay men. Not only do you have anti-LGBT Putin backing (and possibly even orchestrating) the actions undertaken by the anti-LGBT Kadyrov, you've also got jihadist groups in the region, including those aligned with the Islamic State terrorist organization (ISIS). Gay men have cause to be fearful not only of the Chechen government but they also their own families, who, if the men were found to be Gay, would end their life in so-called 'honor killings.' Gay men have begun fleeing the region.
According to some of the men who were captured but later released by Chechen police, as part of the sweep, investigators posed as men looking for dates or sex on social media. As news spreads about the entrapment, witnesses say Gay men have begun deleting online accounts across the country.
United Nations officials have noted that much of the abuse is reported to have taken place at an unofficial detention center near Argun, a town about 10 miles east of Grozny, the Chechen capital. Nobody knows for sure though, exactly how many of these camps exist and to what extent the prisoner count is.
'The arrested men are subjected to physical and verbal abuse, torture including with electric shocks, beatings, insults, and humiliations,' the experts wrote. 'They are forced to give contact details of other Gay people and threatened with having their sexual orientation disclosed to their family and community - a move which could put them at risk of 'honor killings.'
While the idea of anything even slightly resembling an 'honor killing' might seem impossible to believe for most Americans, the fact is they happen around the globe at an alarming rate. And the Kremlin-backed Kadyrov defends such crimes. On the very day that his spokesman denied that there were any Gay men living in Chechnya at all, he also told the Interfax news agency, 'If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.'
This, say some of the men who were rounded up but later released, allows for the authorities to blackmail Gay men into giving up others who are Gay in return for silence from the police, who would otherwise contact family members to all but ensure their death.
A survivor, who managed to escape from one of the torture camps, told France 24 News that police told parents of Gay men to 'sort it out' or risk authorities taking matters into their own hands.
'They tell the parents to kill their child. They say, 'Either you do it, or we will,' the man said.
'They call it: 'Cleaning your honor with blood,' he said.
'They tortured a man for two weeks (then) they summoned his parents and brothers who all came,' said the man. 'The authorities said to them: 'Your son is a homosexual - sort it out or we'll do it ourselves'.'
The victim added, 'We've always been persecuted, but never like this. Now they arrest everyone. They kill people, they do whatever they want.'
The man's name has been suppressed to protect his identity.
The man described the facilities that captured men are taken to as 'modern-day concentration camps.' Beatings, indefinite detention, electrocution, emotional abuse, and bizarre, forced quasi-sexual acts have all been reported to have taken place in the horrific prisons.
Although Gay men from around the world have been targeted throughout various times in history, what's going on in Chechnya marks the first time since World War II and Hitler's Third Reich that Gay men have been rounded up and kept in camps like this.
As one could imagine, corruption abounds within the Chechen ranks. Survivors report that most of the men hunted by Chechen forces are blackmailed and forced to pay large ransoms for their freedom. Some are imprisoned over and over again, treated as cash cows by corrupt officers.
Survivors say that their mobile phones were kept on while they were detained, so if any lovers or Gay friends phoned or messaged them, they could be rounded up too.
Novaya Gazeta helped a Russian LGBT network set up a hotline for Gay men to share their experiences recently, and they report that it has been flooded with messages from people who had survived the camps.
The reports of Chechnya's so-called Gay purge have attracted international attention and light condemnation. World leaders have all offered the obligatory 'It's horrific' statements (except for President Trump, who hasn't even mentioned this tragedy has occurred, let alone condemned it), which will, of course, have no impact whatsoever on helping these men.
So far, the highest-ranking American official to speak out against the crimes is America's Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who is calling for an investigation.
'We continue to be disturbed by reports of kidnapping, torture, and murder of people in Chechnya based on their sexual orientation and those persecuted by association,' Haley said in a statement to the media April 29.
UK Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay has called on Russia to investigate the mass detentions.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has emerged as the strongest opposition to Putin and his stooge Kadyrov. Last week Merkel pressured Putin to investigate reports of torture and the persecution of Gay men in Chechnya and ensure the safety of LGBT people across the region.
Making her first trip to Russia in two years, Merkel raised concerns with Putin about the reported violent crackdown during a meeting in Sochi.
'I asked President Putin to use his influence to protect these minority rights,' Merkel told reporters.
On Friday, Putin said he would personally ask the prosecutor general and interior minister to help Kremlin rights ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova check the reported abuse. During a meeting with Moskalkova, Putin referred to the reports as 'rumors, you could say, about what is happening in our North Caucasus with people of 'nontraditional orientation.'
Still, the rife homophobia goes much deeper than Putin and his leadership. To fix this problem is to dedicate years, perhaps decades, to changing the way Gay men are accepted on a social level. In fact, homophobia is so prevalent that the reporters at Novaya Gazeta now fear for their lives.
Chechen Muslim clerics met on April 3, two days after the paper's revelations, and said the report had insulted their faith and the dignity of Chechen men.
'Retribution will catch up with the true instigators, wherever and whoever they are,' their resolution said.
Novaya Gazeta says it amounts to a call for 'reprisals against journalists.'
'We urge the Russian authorities to do everything possible to prevent actions aimed at inciting hatred and enmity towards journalists, who are doing their professional duty,' the paper said.
And as for honor killings - those have already happened too. Last week the world learned that a teenager was pushed to his death from a ninth-floor balcony in Chechnya after his uncle discovered he was Gay.
The 17-year-old was allegedly thrown from the building by his uncle after his family was reportedly told to 'wash the shame' of the teenager away, according to Russian media reports, who did not name the boy.
The good news is that the brave people that make up the Russian LGBT Network, an interregional, nongovernmental human rights organization that promotes equal rights and respect for human dignity, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, has successfully evacuated more than 30 Gay men from Chechnya.
On April 17, officials at the Russian LGBT Network said in a statement to the media, 'To date around 60 people have contacted the Russian LGBT Network. Some of these people are still in the area and are in need of urgent evacuation, while others have managed to relocate themselves but nevertheless need further assistance. More than 30 people have already been provided with support.'
'Among those who have applied to us for help, there are two victims of the persecutions, with whom we suddenly lost contact for unknown reasons,' continued the statement. 'We presume some people may have decided to delay their decision to leave the region, but unfortunately, we cannot rule out the possibility that something more untoward has happened to them.'
'We know that people and organizations all over the world are collecting money in order to support our work in evacuating people from the region, and we are greatly appreciative,' said officials. 'This money will go toward transportation, accommodation, basic goods, and medical and psychological support, as well as the preparation of necessary documents. It is dangerous for most of the survivors to stay in Russia; therefore, we are preparing for their evacuation from the country.'
If you want to learn more about what the Russian LGBT Network is doing to help Gay men in Chechnya, or if you would like to make a donation, go to www.lgbtnet.org/en.
In addition, a Canadian human rights organization that assists LGBT people in escaping places where they face persecution is launching a campaign to help Gay men get out of Chechnya.
'Since we first received initial reports of Gay concentration camps being established in Chechnya, Rainbow Railroad immediately reclassified Eastern Europe as a priority region,' said Rainbow Railroad's executive director, Kimahli Powell, in a statement. 'This means we're expanding our on-the-ground contacts as well as increasing our capacity to identify and assess new or alternative safe routes out of Chechnya.'
Rainbow Railroad is collaborating with the Russian LGBT Network. The two plan to identify specific individuals who need to be evacuated, and Rainbow Railroad will provide travel assistance for those people.
'An important part of our emergency response plan is to support the Russian LGBT Network in their rescue campaign,' Powell said. 'This includes fundraising to support the organization while allocating resources to increase the number of people we can support in the region. In addition, we are formally requesting the Canadian government provide direct assistance to those in need by way of emergency visas.'
On Thursday, five Gay rights activists were detained in Moscow as they tried to deliver a petition to the office of Russia's prosecutor general.
Police said they were held because their action was unauthorized.
The activists said more than two million people had signed the petition to investigate alleged torture and detentions of Gay people in Chechnya.
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