Out of Sight Out of Mind: The Purge of Chechnya’s LGBT Community
Deep in Russia’s mountainous southwest lies Chechnya, a semi-autonomous and predominantly Muslim subdivision of the Russian state. Most of Chechnya’s modern history has been characterised by years of violent conflict both internal and external, failed independence movements, and a reputation for harbouring Muslim jihadists. The Muslim-majority republic has been devastated by two separatists’ wars with Russia since 1994, is regularly the scene of human rights abuses, and is known to use its security services to carry out killings and torture of opponents to president Ramzan Kadyrov. While never well known for its pristine human rights record, new reports of a government-sanctioned ‘gay purge’ in Chechnya underscore the image of a morally corrupt and oppressive regime.
On April 1st the independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, broke the news that Chechen officials had sanctioned the rounding up of gay Chechen men. The men would then be sent to black sites to be tortured and mistreated on grounds they had committed homosexual acts. The government-sanctioned roundup does not discriminate, with influential associates of the republic’s religious leaders as well as two well-known Chechen broadcasters amongst the detainees. The campaign has been going on for several weeks now. Law enforcement and security agency officials under the control of Ramzan Kadyrov, President of the Chechen Republic, rounded up dozens of men torturing and humiliating them, causing others to forcibly disappear, and leaving some badly mangled barely alive to return to their families as a warning sign to others.
Reports on the brutal campaign against Chechnya’s LGBT community remain minimal due to problems of access and fear. Chechnya’s remote location and history of violence has made it difficult for journalists to access the republic. The traditional and close-knit Chechen community coupled with the regime’s harsh history with dissenters has left those affected fearful of speaking out. Initially there was little verification of the claims, however they have since been confirmed by human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group. Human Rights Watch published a statement saying "the information published by Novaya Gazeta is consistent with the reports Human Rights Watch recently received from numerous trusted sources, including sources on the ground." The organisation went on to emphasise how incredibly vulnerable LGBT people in Chechnya are considering they live in a republic where homophobia is intense and rampant.
While in other communities families and activists may put pressure on the government to reform, Chechen society remains strictly conservative making LGBT rights anything but a priority. In a manner consistent with a 17th century Salem witch hunt, families are still likely to out one of their own family members to the government forces. Even the ancient custom of honour killing is still prominent in the republic, making Chechnya a dangerous place to be gay. A representative of the Chechen government went on record to say, "law enforcement wouldn’t have a problem with them [gay people] because their relatives would send them to a place of no return." The attitudes towards homosexuality reflect the deeply conservative nature of Chechen society.
The roundup is speculated to have been triggered in response to a campaign led by GayRussia.ru, a well-known Moscow-based gay rights group, who has been campaigning and petitioning for demonstrative marches around Russia. The group has been submitting requests to hold marches in cities across Russia, however, they did not apply to march in Chechnya but rather in the neighbouring republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.
Although information remains limited, the international community has begun to demand not only an explanation but also Russian intervention. Chechen officials have taken the threat of international outrage lightly and have approached the subject humorously. The original report, published on April 1st, prompted a senior spokesperson for Chechnya’s ministry to dismiss the claims as an April fool’s joke. The Chechen government will not admit that gay men exist in the Republic let alone that they ordered the roundup. Alvi Karimov, the spokesperson for the Chechen government, went on to describe the report as "absolute lies and disinformation" stating that gay people cannot be a target because "you cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic."
On April 3rd, Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, stated that the Kremlin was previously unaware of the situation but would look into the reports. While it is clear Moscow is now privy to the events in Chechnya, it is not thought that they will do much to intervene given Russia’s history regarding LGBT rights. It is also discouraging that Moscow insists that victims go through official channels at the local level to file complaints given the immense risks this poses to already vulnerable individuals.
The US State Department appealed for Russia to investigate the reports that over 100 Chechen men have been detained, tortured, and murdered in the region with an official saying "we urge the Russian government to conduct an independent and credible investigation into the alleged killings and mass arrests, and hold the perpetrators responsible." However, the same official declined to comment on record if Rex Tillerson, current US Secretary of State, would address the issue during his upcoming visit to Moscow. Nonetheless, the statement is noteworthy considering President Trump’s own problems addressing LGBT rights within in the United States. The visit marks the first of its kind under the Trump administration and will set the tone of policy decisions between the two nations for the near-future. Given the United States’ recent decision to deploy missiles in Syria, an ally of Russia, following a regime sponsored chemical weapon attack, Russo – American relations are certainly fragile.
While initial reports of a gay-purge in Russia’s semi-autonomous Muslim-majority republic have caused outcry amongst international observers, the lack of coverage and testimonies from victims makes it difficult to get to the truth. Chechnya’s refusal to not only admit to the atrocities but also their denial of the existence of an LGBT community within the republic reflects its overall deeply conservative mentality. With a past of ill treatment regarding dissenters, the environment of fear has kept victims from coming forward. While the international community is outraged by the government-sponsored detention of Chechnya’s LGBT community, it is sadly doubtful that much will be done regarding Russian intervention. However, only time will tell.