Hundreds of activists gather outside the Russian Embassy in central London in protest against the treatment of homosexuals in Chechnya. (Photo by Stephen Chung/LNP/REX/Shutterstock); Background photo by Reuters/Maxim Zmeyev.
First, two television reporters vanished. Then a waiter went missing. Over the past week, men ranging in age from 16 to 50 have disappeared from the streets of Chechnya. International human rights activists are decrying reports that at least 100 gay men have been arrested, and three killed, in the Russian region of Chechnya.
Novaya Gazeta, a leading Moscow-owned Russian opposition newspaper confirmed a story already circulating among human rights activists: The Chechen authorities were arresting and killing gay men. The paper cited claims by federal law enforcement officials who said the men, ranging in ages from 16 to 50, were detained “in connection with their nontraditional sexual orientation, or suspicion of such.”
The sweep, like so much else in Russian politics today, was entangled in the country’s troubled politics of street activism. It began, Novaya Gazeta reported, after a Moscow-based gay rights group, GayRussia.ru, applied for permits to stage gay pride parades in four cities in Russia’s predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region, of which Chechnya is a part.
The group had not focused on the Muslim areas. It had been applying for permits for gay parades in provincial cities around Russia, and collecting the inevitable denials, in order to build a case about gay rights and freedom of assembly with the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France. It had applied to more than 90 municipal governments. Nikolai Alekseev, a gay rights activist coordinating this effort, told Novaya Gazeta he had chosen this tactic rather than staging risky, unsanctioned gay parades.
The group had not applied for a permit in Chechnya, but in another Muslim region in southern Russia, Kabardino-Balkaria. The mere application there — denied, as usual — had prompted an anti-gay counter-demonstration. In the restive Muslim regions, Mr. Putin has empowered local leaders to press agendas of traditional Muslim values, to co-opt an Islamist underground. The gay pride parade applications became a galvanizing issue.
“In Chechnya, the command was given for a ‘prophylactic sweep’ and it went as far as real murders,” Novaya Gazeta reported. According to the report, the authorities set to finding and arresting closeted gay men, partly by posing as men looking for dates on social networking sites. “Of course, none of these people in any way demonstrated their sexual orientation publicly — in the Caucasus, this is equal to a death sentence,” the newspaper wrote of those detained in the sweep. “I got numerous, numerous signals,” about the sweep of gay men, said Ekaterina L. Sokiryanskaya, Russia project coordinator for the International Crisis Group, and an authority on the North Caucasus. “It came from too many sources not to be true.”
Gay men have begun deleting online accounts, or fleeing the region. One user of Vkontakte, a Russian social networking site, wrote that a 16-year-old boy had been detained in a village in Chechnya. He returned days later, according to the post, “all beaten, just a sack with bones.”
The newspaper published contact information to aid men wanting to leave Chechnya for relatively more tolerant parts of Russia. But reaching communities of closeted gay men in the remote mountain region poses challenges. “Even delivering the information is very difficult,” Ms. Sokiryanskaya, who is familiar with the aid effort, said. “They are just small islands, isolated.”
The reports, however, were quickly dismissed as “absolute lies and disinformation” by a spokesman for Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. The spokesman, Alvi Karimov, then suggested that no gay people were living in the Muslim-majority region. “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” he said, according to The New York Times.
As The Advocate points out, however, Karimov’s statement failed to quash the arrest claims. An April 4 Novaya Gazeta report doubled down on their initial report, with a source telling the newspaper that the Muslim-majority region’s anti-LGBTQ efforts include concentration camps. Detainees in those camps, which have been likened to those in Nazi Germany, are allegedly being subjected to physical abuse at the hands of government officials while being ransomed to their families. Those who are released, sadly, may face additional persecution, as extrajudicial “honor” killings have been known to take place, according to The Washington Post.
Details of the alleged detainments remain frustratingly vague. Chechen activist Kheda Saratova, who is on Kadyrov’s human rights council, dismissed the claims, saying she hasn’t had “a single request” on the issue in a Russian radio interview cited by The Guardian. Much like Karimov before her, however, Saratova downplayed the existence of gay people in the region at large. “In our Chechen society, any person who respects our traditions and culture will hunt down this kind of person without any help from authorities,” Saratova said, “and do everything to make sure that this kind of person does not exist in our society.”
Meanwhile, a number of leading human rights organizations have spoken out against the allegations. On Tuesday, GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis called on U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to condemn the alleged attacks and press for an investigation.
The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights First echoed those sentiments, calling upon Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to speak out against the reports. “In his confirmation hearings, [Tillerson] responded to a question on the human rights of LGBTQ people by noting that ‘American values don’t accommodate violence or discrimination against anyone,’” advocacy counsel Shawn Gaylord said in a statement to The Huffington Post. “Now is the time for him to put the power of his office behind that statement and raise this issue directly with his counterparts.”
Amnesty International, meanwhile, launched a petition of its own, demanding that Chechnya to “stop abducting and killing” gay men.”The Chechen government won’t admit that gay men even exist in Chechnya, let alone that they ordered what the police call ‘preventive mopping up’ of people they deem undesirable,” the petition, which had over 25,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon, read.
On April 12, LGBTQ rights activists in London staged a protest outside of the city’s Russian embassy in response to the reports. “We are seeing very little response to this in the mainstream media, and government action so far is poor,” Steve Taylor, who is the communications director for the European Pride Organizers Association (EPOA) told Gay Star News. “We must not be bystanders, and we must challenge this inhumanity.”
Sources & Recommended Reading…
✽ Alleged Gay ‘Concentration Camps’ In Chechnya Spark Global Outrage -By Curtis M. Wong | Huffington Post
✽ Chechen Authorities Arresting and Killing Gay Men, Russian Paper Says -By Andrew Kramer | The New York Times
✽ Honor Killings -By Elena Milashina | Novaya Gazeta
✽ Chechnya Is Torturing Gay Men in Concentration Camps -By Daniel Reynolds | The Advocate
✽ Gay and Terrified in Chechnya -By Editorial Board | Washington Post
✽ Europe, U.N. Urge Russia to Intervene as Chechnya Allegedly Tortures and Kills Gay People -By Emily Tamkin | Foreign Policy
✽ HRC Calls on U.S. Government to Help Stop Anti-LGBTQ Atrocities in Russia -By Jeremy Kadden | Human Rights Campaign