“You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic.”
That’s what a spokesperson for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said in response to reports that at least 100 suspected gay men had been rounded up and arrested — and at least three killed — recently in the southern Russia republic, following gay rights activists’ efforts to secure permits for LGBTQ pride parades.
Speaking in half-riddle to Interfax News Agency on Saturday, the spokesperson seemed to deny the very existence of gay Chechens.
“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,” he said. A spokesperson for the Interior Ministry of Chechnya told Russian newspaper RBC that reports of the roundup were little more than an “April Fool’s joke.”
The sweep of supposed gay men between the ages of 16 and 50 took place over recent weeks, Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported. Two broadcast reporters are said to be among the detainees, but information so far is scant. “In Chechnya, the command was given for a ‘prophylactic sweep,’ and it went as far as real murders,” Novaya Gazeta reported.
Russia has federal authority over Chechnya, which is located in the majority-Muslim Northern Caucasus region. It functions semi-autonomously and is governed by strongman Kadyrov, an appointee and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since becoming president in 2007, Kadyrov has embraced aspects of religious fundamentalism that he says are appropriate given the region’s Islamic heritage, criminalizing “immoral activities” like drinking or gambling and condoning honor killings of women who commit adultery. Homosexuality is also sometimes seen as grounds for honor killings, which authorities treat with “understanding.” Putin has expressed lukewarm support for gay rights, yet in 2013 he signed a law that banned the distribution of LGBTQ materials among minors. Moscow is known for having a vibrant LGBTQ scene.
Novaya Gazeta reported that the roundup of gay men — previously unheard-of on such a scale — was provoked by a Moscow-based gay rights group’s efforts to acquire permits for LGBTQ pride parades in four cities in the Northern Caucasus Federal District. This was the first time the group had sought official permission to hold an LGBTQ parades in those areas, gay rights activist Nikolai Alekseev told the paper.
“We seek from the state the coordination of our actions and security for the participants,” Alekseev said.
After word circulated that he was trying to secure permits for an LGBTQ pride parade, Alekseev said, he received a barrage of threats “across all possible types of communication.”
News of the crackdown has sent a wave of fear rippling across the region. Gay men have been deleting social media accounts or fleeing the region, the New York Times reported. The Times also referenced a post on Vkontakte, a Russian social networking site, that described a 16-year-old boy who had been detained in a Chechen village, and returned days later “all beaten, just a sack of bones.” Novaya Gazeta reported that some detainees were being released for lack of evidence.