Gays abducted and “disappeared” in Chechnya

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A small group of activists march a 20 meter Rainbow Flag 600 meters down the streets of Moscow, Russia
A small group of activists march a 20 meter Rainbow Flag 600 meters down the streets of Moscow, Russia

Recently horrifying reports have surfaced regarding brutal and extra-legal attacks on LGBT persons in the Republic of Chechnya, a largely Muslim region under the control of the Russian Federation. Human Rights Watch has been closely involved with Russian LGBT organizations in monitoring and reporting on the pogrom of gays now taking place.

The history of Chechnya is one of almost continuous warfare going back for centuries. Russia has been trying to subdue the region since the time of Peter the Great, and the intervening centuries have been full of a level of brutality hardly understood here in the West with massive atrocities by both sides. Religious antipathy has been a major element in this conflict with violence leading to fanaticism.

Since 2007, Chechnya has been run by Ramzan Kadyrov, often regarded as a puppet of the Kremlin. High-level corruption, a terrible human rights record, and a growing cult of personality have characterized Kadyrov’s rule. Kadyrov denied there was persecution of gays, stating there were no homosexuals in Chechnya and if there were, their families would kill them out of a sense of honor.

The manifestly absurd statement that there are no gays in Chechnya may be taken as evidence that no credence can be accorded to official statements by the Chechen government. However, the practice of honor  killings is all too real and well known in conservative Islamic regions.

Out in Jersey interviewed Tanya Lokshina, Russia Program Director for Human Rights Watch about what has been learned regarding the present purge.

Toby Grace: What can you tell us about living conditions in the Chechen prison camp?

Tanya Lokshina: It’s not a prison camp. Victims of the anti-gay purge were dragged off to unofficial detention facilities, which Chechen authorities have been maintaining for a long time. There, they were held together with other unofficial detainees, including drug-users and presumed jihadi sympathizers. They were viciously beaten and tortured with electronic shocks. Security officials also humiliated them, called them vile names and forced other inmates to beat and humiliate them. They also were starved.

Is there any judicial process involved or are people simply being arrested and incarcerated at the whim of police? 

TL: No judicial process is involved. Those detentions were not officially registered. No lawful procedures were observed. These were abduction style detentions and enforced disappearances.

According to reports, some people who were in the camp have been released. Do you have any information on how/why they were released? Is there reason to believe some were released to families who intended “honor” murder? Would such intention be known and agreed to by police?

TL: Some of the victims were released to their families in the following manner; Security officials had them face their relatives and confess their sexual orientation – then, they shamed the relatives for allowing such a stain on family honor, and hinted that they knew what to do in order to remove that stain. They basically encouraged relatives to kill the victims. High-level Chechen officials also fueled homophobic sentiment by their statements.

To what extent is this whole matter known generally by the Russian public and what would the general opinion be about it? Does the general public believe the denial issued by the Chechen authorities and the Russian government? Has the Russian Orthodox Church said anything about it?

TL: Russian Orthodox Church has not commented on the issue. The Russian public at large is not overly concerned about this situation. Homophobia is very wide spread in Russia, and discriminatory federal legislation and government policies have only served to make it more intense.

Russian/Chechen journalists who have written about the camp have been condemned and threatened. Have any been attacked or injured at this point? Is it possible for them to take any security measures?

TL: The journalists from Novaya Gazeta, a leading Russian independent newspaper, received numerous serious threats following their reporting on this devastating story. They filed a complaint with the official authorities and an investigation into their complaint has been launched. The Kremlin’s spokesman emphasized that Russia does not allow for retaliation against journalists, and no lawless steps are acceptable.

Editors note: The brutal murder on October 7, 2006 of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, known for her critical reporting on the conflict in Chechnya in which she sought to expose human rights abuses, was a reminder that Russian journalism is a dangerous occupation and violence awaits those who become inconvenient. More than 21 journalists have been killed since Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in March 2000 and many more since 1993. In most cases, no one has been convicted for the murders.

In your view, what can people outside the Russian Federation, especially in the U.S., do to help in this dreadful situation?

TL: All the key international actors must maintain pressure on Russia to ensure that Moscow puts an end to Kadyrov’s purge and protects the courageous journalists who broke the story. They should also give refuge to the victims, as those victims aren’t safe in Russia, where Chechen security officials, zealots, and their relatives could find them. The U.S. should take a principled stand and enable several of the victims to find safe sanctuary on its territory — a step that would also serve to encourage other Western democracies to do the same.