Activists Are Scrambling to End Chechnya’s Persecution of Gay Men

As reports emerge that gay men are being imprisoned and murdered in the republic, activists are urging citizens to put pressure on Western officials to act.

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Apr 13 2017, 12:30am

Illustration av Lia Kantrowitz

By all accounts, what's been happening to gay men over the last few weeks in Chechnya is absolutely chilling: reports detail authorities rounding up large numbers of gay men, illegally imprisoning them, and carrying out beatings and murders. Human rights groups, from Human Rights Watch to Outright Action International, are now sounding urgent alarms, with numerous international organizations pressuring Russian officials to act while others are poised to evacuate queer citizens.

Thus far, officials closest to the violence have reacted with disinterest. A spokesman for Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, told reporters that "you can't detain and repress people who simply don't exist in the republic."

As Chechnya is a republic of Russia, Russian officials have oversight over the republic—and many have openly expressed intense hostility toward queer people, including President Vladimir Putin, who called for a "cleanse" of homosexuality in 2014.

Many in the region consider homosexuality a phenomenon imported from western countries, and Chechnya has a long history of violence against queer people. Homosexuality has been criminalized for most of the last century there, and head of state Ramzan Kadyrov has imposed harsh Islamic religious law, endorsing family "honor killings" of women, for example.

"The region has been hostile to LGBT people for many years," said Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, a nonprofit that helps relocate LGBTQ refugees. "There's a culture of anti-gay behavior there."

Experts are unsure why gay men have started being targeted for detention, and though the recent detentions have been reported as taking place in "concentration camps," reports from the ground indicate that they may be more accurately described as illegal prison facilities, holding a variety of different groups for varying amounts of time.

For many queer people reading news of the crisis, it's difficult not to feel helpless and discouraged. But as various non-governmental organizations mobilize to stop further attacks and bring perpetrators to justice, they emphasize that there are various ways people far removed from Chechnya can support that work, such as donating to human rights groups operating on the ground in Russia.

"At the end of March we started to receive reports about kidnappings and killings of gay men in Chechnya," said Svetlana Zakharova, communications manager at The Russian LGBT Network. For over a decade, her organization has advocated for stronger civil rights in Russia and has provided secure relocation for Russian citizens in danger, but the current crisis presents an unprecedented challenge.

"The most difficult thing is to make people trust us," she said. "They are scared. For them, it's really hard to trust someone." Many victims have contacted the organization, she said, though for their safety she declined to say how many and if any have been relocated. "If they will not trust us, they will have to stay in Chechnya."

While smaller organizations like Zakharova's mobilize on the ground, larger groups like Amnesty International are pushing for a response from world leaders.

"The United States needs to very clearly outline these human rights abuses and demand action from the Russian government," Tarah Demant, senior director of Amnesty's Identity and Discrimination Unit told me. She pointed out that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was scheduled to meet with Kremlin officials for the first time on Wednesday of this week. "Ultimately, Secretary Tillerson himself needs to raise this with Russian officials on his upcoming trip," she said. That meeting was ultimately marked by widespread discord, and it's unclear whether the raids in Chechnya were discussed.

As of press time, the State Department has only issued a brief statement on the crisis, condemning persecution based on sexual orientation and urging Russian authorities to "speak out" against the attacks. The statement did not call for authorities to provide protection for victims, who would be vulnerable to attack once released. A State Department spokeswoman declined to provide any further details.

"We're glad to see the State Department statement, but it needs to be the first of several steps," said Demant. She said that Amnesty is currently trying to schedule a meeting with State Department officials, but there's nothing on the calendar yet. "With this new government—there are new relationships to form, would be one way of putting it," she said. "We're asking normal people to call on Secretary Tillerson to raise this as an issue."

According to human rights groups, international pressure will be key in ending the ongoing attacks.

"It's all about making sure western governments raise the issue with Russian authorities at the highest level, and ask specifically what measures are being taken to investigate and what sort of security guarantees are going to be made," said Russia program director Tanya Lokshina at Human Rights Watch.

"There's a variety of stakeholders," said Björn van Roozendaal, programs director at the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. He listed local officials in Chechnya, federal officials in Moscow, and international figures as all having a responsibility to end the violence.

"We ask people to share information about what's going on," said Zakharova. "To protest next to the Russian embassy if it's safe. We believe that such pressure can really make the authorities start the investigation."

"Also extremely important is for concerned citizens to approach their governments and ask them: Those victims who want to seek refuge, are we going to give refuge to them?" said Tanya Lokshina at Human Rights Watch.

"If the climate of impunity continues we are concerned that more men will become victims," wrote Amnesty International Eurasia Researcher Heather McGill. "Men who may be seen as having 'tarnished' the family's 'honor,' by being gay or are believed to be gay, face a very real risk of being killed by members of their own families. Perpetrators of 'honor killings' often enjoy impunity for their crimes."

Though the situation is dire, activists remain hopeful that international intervention can help victims and mitigate the threat.

"We hope there will be some willingness from some countries to take in some of the victims," said van Roozendaal.

"The United States has influence in the world," said Amnesty's Tarah Demant. "The United States should use that influence in service of a human rights agenda."

"The best-case scenario is the authorities would intervene," said Zakharova. "The Kremlin would intervene, and the killings and kidnappings and torture would stop, and the responsible people would be punished. The worst-case scenario—I don't even want to think about that."

Follow Matt Baume on Twitter.

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