Anti-gay purges in Chechnya
Beginning in February 2017, it has been reported that more than 100 male residents of the Chechen Republic, a part of the Russian Federation, have been forcibly disappeared, being abducted, held prisoner and tortured by authorities targeting them based on their perceived sexual orientation. An unknown number of the men, whom authorities detained on suspicion of being gay or bisexual, have reportedly died after being held in what human rights groups and eyewitnesses have called concentration camps.
Allegations were initially reported on 1 April 2017 in Novaya Gazeta, a Russian-language opposition newspaper, which reported that over 100 men had allegedly been detained and tortured and at least three had died in an extrajudicial killing. The paper, citing its sources in the Chechen special services, called the wave of detentions a "prophylactic sweep". The journalist who first reported on the subject has gone into hiding. There have been calls for reprisals against journalists who report on the situation.
As news spread of Chechen authorities' actions, which have been described as part of a systematic anti-LGBT purge, Russian and international activists scrambled to evacuate survivors of the camps and other vulnerable Chechens but met with difficulty obtaining visas to conduct them safely beyond Russia.
The reports of the persecution met with a variety of reactions worldwide. The Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov denied not only the occurrence of any persecution but also the existence of gay men in Chechnya, adding that such people would be killed by their own families. Officials in Moscow were sceptical, although in late May the Russian government reportedly agreed to send an investigative team to Chechnya. Numerous national leaders and other public figures in the West condemned Chechnya's actions, and protests were held in Russia and elsewhere.
The status of LGBT rights in the Chechen Republic has long been a concern among human rights organizations (including Amnesty International) and it has been described as "especially bleak" within the context of the Russian Federation as a whole. It was also singled out for criticism by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International before the 2017 crackdown. Chechnya is a predominantly Muslim, ultra-conservative society in which homophobia is widespread and homosexuality is taboo, and where having a gay relative is seen as a "stain on the entire extended family".
The federal Russian LGBT laws apply in Chechnya, which is a part of the Russian Federation. However, in Chechnya, as in other regions of southern Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin "has empowered local leaders to enforce their interpretation of traditional values, partly in an effort to co-opt religious extremism, which has largely been driven underground".
Although homosexuality was legalized in Russia in 1993, in 1996 Chechnya's separatist president Aslan Maskhadov adopted sharia law in his Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, and article 148 of the Chechen penal code made all "sodomy" punishable by caning after the first two offences and punishable by execution after the third offence, although the death penalty in Chechnya has not been carried out since 1999. Chechnya returned to direct Russian rule in 2000, formally complying with its federal laws and human right statutes. De facto, it retains some autonomy, and the current Head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, "has brought Islam to the fore of Chechnya's daily life, and gay people who reveal their sexuality are often discriminated against and shunned by their families".
A spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed Chechen leaders' claims that anti-gay persecution is not occurring in the republic. Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov claimed that the reports didn't have a "single concrete fact".
Large-scale raids and killings
The detentions began in February 2017 after a Chechen man who had allegedly committed a drug-related offense was stopped by police and arresting officers discovered contact information for other gay men on his phone.
A second wave of detentions began after the LGBT rights organization Gayrussia.ru applied for permits to hold gay pride parades in four cities within Kabardino-Balkaria in Russia's predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region, although not within Chechnya itself. The application in this district was denied by the Kabardino-Balkar authorities. An anti-gay demonstration followed, along with posts on social media calling for gay people to be murdered by various methods.
Gayrussia.ru organizer Nikolay Alexeyev dismissed suggestions that attempts to organize pride parades in the region had sparked the violence against gay Chechens as speculative and unfounded. The organization had not focused on the Muslim districts in particular, and it had applied for permits for gay pride parades in 90 municipal governments all across Russia in an attempt to collect the inevitable denials, which would be used in a case about freedom of assembly and gay rights before the European Court of Human Rights.
Human Rights Watch reported in 2017 that "it is difficult to overstate just how vulnerable LGBT people are in Chechnya, where homophobia is intense and rampant. LGBT people are in danger not only of persecution by the authorities but also of falling victim to 'honour killings' by their own relatives for tarnishing family honor." Kadyrov has encouraged extrajudicial killings by family members as an alternative to law enforcement – in some cases, gay men in prison have been released early specifically to enable their murder by relatives.
The Chechen police and military have conducted entrapment schemes, in which a victim is lured on a date, beaten and humiliated. A recording is produced, and blackmail money is solicited in return for silence. Law enforcement agencies in Chechnya already keep lists of "suspects". According to a source from Radio Liberty, raids on gays began in December 2016, subsided briefly, and resumed on a large scale in February 2017. The first gay men who were detained via entrapment were tortured in attempts to reveal the names of their acquaintances.
All of the correspondence in their phones was checked, adding to the "suspect" list. This resulted in the number of victims growing exponentially. According to Novaya Gazeta, at the end of February, the police detained and checked the phone of a person who was in a state of intoxication. The phone had "pictures and videos with explicit content" and "dozens of contacts of local homosexuals". The detainee was sent to a "secret prison". Subsequently, a "wave of persecution" began in Chechnya as an attempt to purge the country of those who are homosexual or are perceived to be homosexual. Chechen police are reportedly pressuring parents in the region to kill their children who they suspect of being homosexual. To facilitate this, police have reportedly been releasing detainees into the custody of their families and outing them.
Imprisonment and torture
According to independent media and human rights groups, gay men are sent to clandestine camps in Chechnya, which one eyewitness described to Novaya Gazeta as a "closed prison, the existence of which no one officially knows". Around 100 men have been imprisoned and at least three people have already died. Some of the guards in these allegedly unofficial jails are accused of releasing the prisoners to their relatives if their relatives promise to kill them (at least one man was reported by a witness as having died after returning to his family). One location of a secret prison is allegedly in the southern city of Argun. Another prison is located in Tsotsin-Yurt, south of the Chechen capital Grozny.
According to escapees interviewed in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and the British-owned The Guardian, 30 to 40 people are detained in one room (two to three metres big), and often kept for months on end without trial. Witnesses report they are also beaten (with polypropylene pipes below the waist), and tortured with electricity. In addition to physical torture, individuals report being mocked, humiliated and insulted, as well as being forced to clean the prison and spat in the face. In some cases the process of torture ends in the death of the person being tortured.
In May 2017, it was reported that the building in Argun had been buried under demolition rubble and that prisoners had been moved to a new, unknown location. Investigators say that prisoners are likely to have been moved to a Special Police Force training base in Terek, about 60 kilometres (37 mi) 60 in Argun, but they have been denied entry, because 'training is taking place'.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed that authorities have "rounded up dozens of men on suspicion of being gay and that they are currently torturing and humiliating the victims. Some of the men have forcibly disappeared. At least three men have died since this brutal campaign began." An investigation by Radio Svoboda (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty) claimed that prisoners are being released to their families if their families promise to murder them.
A 7 April 2017 press statement by the United States Department of State expressed concern "about the situation in the Republic of Chechnya, where there have been numerous credible reports indicating the detention".
A lengthy analysis published on 26 May by Human Rights Watch reported the presence of leading government officials at the camps while detainees were being tortured. The report, which includes graphic descriptions of the ordeals faced by several survivors of the camps, suggested that several victims of the camps were still being detained at the time of its publication.
In June, a journalist with VICE News visited a now-abandoned detention center in Argun believed to be the site of one of the camps, and interviewed the local minister of internal affairs, who also acts as prison warden. The warden denied that abuse had taken place, and said, "My officers would not even want to touch such people, if they exist, let alone beating or torturing them". Shown footage of the detention center, a man who described being electrocuted by his captors identified it as the site where he was held, and also identified the warden as one of his tormentors.
Chechen and Russian authorities have denied any knowledge of the persecution. The Russian LGBT Network, an inter-regional LGBT rights organization based in Saint Petersburg, is attempting to assist those who are threatened and evacuate them from Chechnya. Human rights groups and foreign governments have called upon Russia and Chechnya to put an end to the internments.
Due to the date (1 April) of the initial Novaya Gazeta allegations, a spokesman for the region's interior ministry described the report as "an April fool's joke". Alvi Karimov, spokesperson for Ramzan Kadyrov, also rejected the allegations, saying: "you cannot arrest or repress people who just don't exist in the republic", while also adding that "If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn't need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning". Sources have said that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov wanted the LGBT community eliminated by 26 May.
On 14 April 2017 Dmitry Peskov, Press Secretary for the President of Russia, said "We do not have any reliable information about any problems in this area". The Russian LGBT Network is attempting to evacuate from Chechnya those who are threatened. The Canada-based charity Rainbow Railroad announced that it is working with the Russian LGBT Network to establish safe routes out of the region and assist at-risk men in escaping.
On 5 May, Putin agreed to a proposal by Russia's human rights ombudsman to form a group to investigate the reports.
In Moscow, on 10 May, five activists were arrested while en route to the prosecutor general's office to deliver a petition calling for an unbiased investigation. According to the Russian LGBT Network, the petition bore more than two million signatures of people in various countries. The arrests followed an incident at a May Day parade in St. Petersburg in which riot police reportedly detained 17 protesters who sought to bring attention to the ongoing events in Chechnya.
It was reported on 17 May that survivors of Chechnya's anti-gay persecution were having difficulty finding countries willing to issue them visas. The Russia LGBT Network reported having unproductive talks with American embassy officials, in which they were told there was "no political will" to issue U.S. visas to the refugees. As of 19 May, a total of nine survivors of the persecution had reportedly been granted visas—two by Lithuania, the others by countries that Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius termed "allies" but declined to identify. Linkevičius urged other nations of the European Union to accept more of the refugees. As of June, the Russian LGBT Network reported that 42 men had been evacuated to other parts of Russia. While they are safe there from the immediate threat of detention, they risk being tracked down by family members of the Chechen diaspora if they remain in Russia.
In late May, following weeks of international pressure, the Kremlin authorized its human rights ombudswoman, Tatiana Moskalkova, to assemble a preliminary fact-finding team, which has sent investigators to Chechnya. Early reports indicated that Chechen officials were attempting to sabotage the team's investigation.
After a lull, the Russian LGBT Network announced in July that it was again receiving reports of authorities persecuting gay Chechens. The group voiced doubt that the Russian government was conducting an actual investigation, despite earlier claims to the contrary from the Kremlin.
In a television interview slated for broadcast on July 18, Kadyrov reiterated his earlier contention that there are no gay people in Chechnya and denied that they had been arrested and tortured by his government. "We don't have any gays," he said. "If there are any, take them to Canada. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them." In the interview, he called the men who stated they had been tortured as "devils". He stated, "They made it up." adding, "They are for sale. They are subhuman. God damn them for slandering us. They will have to answer to the Almighty for this."
On 4 April 2017 Amnesty International called for a prompt investigation and intervention, and more than 130,000 people have signed a petition started by the organization in opposition to alleged human rights violations. The camps became an issue in the 2017 French presidential election, with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Benoît Hamon and Emmanuel Macron condemning Chechnya for them, while François Fillon and Marine Le Pen remained silent. In the United Kingdom, British MEPs urged Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to meet with the Russian Ambassador. Johnson wrote on Twitter that it was "outrageous" that the government of Chechnya "supports rather than stops ill-treatment of LGBT people", adding that he agreed with comments from Baroness Anelay regarding the killing of "at least three" gay men, as well as the "abhorrent" statement by the Chechen authorities, which implied "that such treatment towards LGBT [people] is acceptable". A protest attended by hundreds was held on 12 April 2017, outside the Embassy of Russia in London. Julie Bishop, the Australian Foreign Minister, condemned both the arrests and the camps.
On 13 April 2017, a panel of five experts that advises the United Nations Human Rights Council called on Chechnya to "put an end to the persecution of people perceived to be gay or bisexual in the Chechen Republic who are living in a climate of fear fueled by homophobic speeches by local authorities". Also on 13 April, the director of the human rights office at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that Moscow must "urgently investigate the alleged disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment" of gay men in Chechnya. Lilianne Ploumen, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, has called for a statement of condemnation from the 32 members (Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, Italy, Mexico, Montenegro, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Uruguay) of the Equal Rights Coalition. In a statement released on 15 April, the Government of Canada called the "persecution of LGBTQ2 people in Chechnya reprehensible", calling upon Russia to investigate and ensure the safety of those at risk.
A 7 April 2017 press statement by the United States Department of State expressed concern "about the situation in the Republic of Chechnya, where there have been numerous credible reports indicating the detentions and deaths of LGBTI individuals". Fifty members of the United States Congress signed a letter urging Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was in Russia in April to publicly question the validity of the reports and to pressure the Russian government to investigate and put a stop to the arrests. On 17 April 2017, Nikki Haley, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, released a statement saying, "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. If true, this violation of human rights cannot be ignored – Chechen authorities must immediately investigate these allegations, hold anyone involved accountable, and take steps to prevent future abuses." On 20 April 2017, former Secretary of State and 2016 Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton condemned the developments and called on the Trump administration to do the same.
On 27 April the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a statement condemning the persecution of gay men in Chechnya. In a press release, the museum's director called on Chechen and Russian authorities to investigate the matter and "ensure the safety of LGBT populations within the Russian Federation".
German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the topic in a meeting on 2 May with Putin, and she urged him to exert his influence to "ensure that minorities' rights are protected". The following day, in a joint letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the foreign ministers of five European countries (Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden) declared their concern over the situation.
According to a spokesperson for the United States National Security Council, the topic of anti-gay persecution did not arise at a May 10 meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Lavrov. A White House spokesperson said that she was "not 100 percent sure" whether Trump had been briefed on the issue. As of May 10, neither Trump nor U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had made any public comment on the matter. Testifying before members of the House of Representatives on June 14, Tillerson reported that he had not discussed the matter during a meeting with Lavrov and did not know if Trump had raised it with Putin. A spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in Israel blamed reports of anti-gay persecution in Chechnya on a "propaganda campaign against Russia". In a May 11 letter published in the newspaper Haaretz, press attaché Dmitry Alushkin asserted that "authorized official government bodies of the Russian Federation" had conducted an investigation and that "[there] are no victims of persecution, threats or violence". He criticized Israeli citizens for spreading "factually incorrect information".
Three France-based human rights organizations (Stop Homophobia, Moss and Idaho France), filed a complaint on 16 May with the International Criminal Court (ICC) accusing Chechen government officials of genocide. The complaint, which alleged that the anti-gay activities occurring in Chechnya were not the work of isolated groups but rather were orchestrated by the Chechen government, referred to Kadyrov as the "logistician" of the concentration camps. Putin announced in 2016 that Russia, which signed but never ratified the treaty creating the ICC, would end its relationship with the treaty in November 2017.
On 23 May 2017, in the United States, Republican and Democratic members of the House of Representatives introduced House Resolution 351. The resolution condemns the persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya and calls upon the Russian government to condemn the violence. On 27 June 2017, Resolution 351 passed unanimously in the House of Representatives.
In a meeting with Putin on 29 May, French president Emmanuel Macron pressed the Russian leader on the plight of LGBT Chechens and promised constant vigilance on the issue. According to Macron, Putin reported having taken steps to ascertain "the complete truth on the activities of local authorities".
On December 20, 2017, the United States Treasury Department announced it was imposing sanctions on Kadyrov and a Chechen law enforcement official, Ayub Katayev, citing "gross violations of internationally recognized human rights". The measures, applied under the Magnitsky Act, restrict travel and freeze assets. A spokesman for Russian president Putin called the sanctions "illegal" and indicated that Moscow would enact similar restrictions on U.S. officials in response.
On April 20, 2018, the United States Department of State released the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices of 2017. The report on Russia said the following about the situation of LGBTI people in Chechnya from December 2016 to December 2017.
The most significant human rights issues included extrajudicial killings, including of LGBTI persons in Chechnya; enforced disappearances; torture that was systematic and sometimes resulted in death and sometimes included punitive psychiatric incarceration; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prisons; arbitrary arrest and detention; lack of judicial independence; political prisoners; severe interference with privacy; severe restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, including the use of “antiextremism” and other vague laws to prosecute peaceful dissent; and violence against journalists and bloggers; blocking and filtering of internet content and use of cyberattacks to disrupt peaceful internet discussion; severe restrictions on the rights of peaceful assembly; increasingly severe restriction on freedom of association, including laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable foreign organization”; restrictions on freedom of movement of those charged with political offenses; refoulement; severe restriction on the right to participate in the political process, including restrictions on opposition candidates’ ability to seek public office and conduct political campaigns, and on the ability of civil society to monitor election processes; widespread corruption at all levels and in all branches of government; thousands of fatal incidents of domestic violence to which the government responded by reducing the penalty for domestic violence, and honor killings and other harmful traditional practices against women in parts of the North Caucasus; thousands of fatal incidents of child abuse; trafficking in persons; institutionalization in harsh conditions of a large percentage of persons with disabilities; and state-sponsored as well as societal violence against LGBTI persons, especially in Chechnya.
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
On April 1, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that, during an “antigay purge” that took place from December 2016 through March, local Chechen security services kidnapped, held prisoner, and tortured more than 100 male residents in Chechnya based on their suspected sexual orientation, resulting in at least three deaths. Multiple independent human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the Russia LGBT Network, and Memorial, subsequently confirmed Novaya Gazeta’s allegations. On April 19, following international condemnation, the government authorized a “preinvestigative check” of the allegations by the Investigative Committee. Chechen officials denied the killings had taken place, while simultaneously making statements that condoned extrajudicial killings of LGBTI persons. In May Human Rights Ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova also began an investigation and requested the Investigative Committee to look into the fate of individual alleged victims, based on information provided to her by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). On July 6, she received an interim response from the Investigative Committee that did not confirm any violence against the LGBTI community in Chechnya, citing a lack of specific information on the victims. She publicly noted her dissatisfaction with the response and traveled to Chechnya in September. According to Novaya Gazeta and credible NGO reports, during her visit to Chechnya, local authorities misled her and attempted to cover up the killings. On October 16, a surviving victim of the “antigay purge,” Maksim Lapunov, filed a complaint with the Investigative Committee in which he alleged torture and provided information about extrajudicial killings. On November 1, Moskalkova stated she would ensure that Lapunov’s allegations were properly investigated, stating, “I believe there are grounds to open a criminal case and provide state protection to Maxim Lapunov.” On December 27, Novaya Gazeta published a report that included interviews with 12 victims of the purge, describing in detail their arrests, imprisonment, and torture at the hands of authorities. According to Novaya Gazeta, by the end of the year, the Russia LGBT Network had evacuated 106 persons from Chechnya, all of whom left Russia.
g. Abuses in Internal Conflict
On April 1, Novaya Gazeta reported that Chechen security services kidnapped, secretly held prisoner, and tortured more than 100 male residents in Chechnya based on their suspected sexual orientation, resulting in at least three deaths (see section 1.a.).
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
Journalists reporting on the North Caucasus remained particularly vulnerable to physical attacks or prosecution for their reporting. Following their exposé of the large-scale violations of human rights against gay men in Chechnya, Chechen officials made threats against the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which first broke the story. At an April 3 gathering of some 15,000 men at a mosque, Chechen presidential adviser Adam Shahidov called Novaya Gazeta journalists “enemies of our faith and our motherland” and threatened “vengeance.” A resolution adopted at the gathering included a promise that “retribution will catch up with the hatemongers wherever and whoever they are, without a statute of limitations,” which Novaya Gazeta believed to constitute a call to violence against its journalists. On April 15, Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milashina announced that the she had left the country following threats against her life. On April 19, Novaya Gazeta reported that it received an envelope mailed from Chechnya containing an unidentified white powder.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
During the year there were reports of both societal and government violence motivated by the sexual orientation or gender identity of the victim. Human rights activists and NGOs reported torture and killings of LGBTI persons in the North Caucasus by security services (see section 1.a. for information on Chechnya).
In September 2017, the Toronto-based nonprofit Rainbow Railroad made public that the Canadian government, working with them, has quietly allowed gay men and lesbians from Chechnya to seek safety in Canada. As of June 2017[update], 22 people deemed government-assisted refugees have found asylum in Canada.
- Zelim Bakaev
- LGBT in Islam
- Violence against LGBT people
- List of concentration and internment camps
- History of Chechnya
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