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What is happening with gay people in Chechnya?

Mayer Nissim July 14, 2017
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Demonstrators lay roses on a rainbow flag as they protest over an alleged crackdown on gay men in Chechnya

Demonstrators outside the Russian Embassy (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

LGBT rights have been steadily improving around the world, but sadly such progress is not linear, nor global, and nothing highlights that more than the shocking persecution of gay men in Chechnya.

Without the same media freedoms enjoyed elsewhere, it’s hard to know exactly what’s happening in the Chechen Republic, but below we round up the most credible reports and ask how we can best help the community there.

Where is Chechnya?

Formally the Chechen Republic, Chechnya is in the North Caucus – situated between the Sea of Azov and Black Sea on the west and the Caspian Sea on the east, within European Russia. Previously part of the Soviet Union, it became part of the Russian Federation in 1991.

It secured de facto independence 1996 after the bloody First Chechen War, but the Russian Federation regained control at the turn of the century at the end of the Second Chechen War. There is still some separatist unrest, but Chechnya is now a federal republic.

Is gay sex illegal in Chechnya?

Chechnya is part of Russia, and despite countless anti-LGBT laws there, same-sex sexual activity in private between consenting adults was decriminalised in 1993 after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, Chechnya’s semi-autonomous status means that it retains own legal code on some issues.

Demonstrators carry placards outside the Russian Embassy in London
Demonstrators carry placards outside the Russian Embassy in London (Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

Strict Islamic Sharia law was adopted by then-Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov in 1996. Consensual anal intercourse – between two men or between a man and a woman – was made illegal under Article 148 of the Chechen Criminal Code.

Chechnya returned to direct Russian rule in 2000, but it still has some legal autonomy – including on issues like same-sex sexual activity – and current leader Ramzan Kadyrov has been outspoken in his criticism of LGBT people.

What is the legal punishment for gay sex in Chechnya?

Under Article 148, consensual anal intercourse was punishable by caning for the first two offences and execution on the third. However, capital punishment has officially been suspended in Russia since 1996.

The suspension of capital punishment was underlined by the Constitutional Court of Russia in 1999 and reaffirmed in 2009. While the death penalty is still codified, Russia has not officially executed anyone since 1996.

What’s happening to gay people in Chechnya?

It’s very hard to get a clear picture of what’s happening in Chechnya from outside the country, and not much easier from inside. Ramzan Kadyrov has been called a “predator of press freedom” by Reporters Without Borders. Freedom House calls him the “worst of the worst”.

Much of the news about the latest wave of persecution has come from independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which has bravely reported on political and social affairs in Russia in the face of significant opposition from the powers that be.

For example, Anna Politkovskaya, who had frequently criticised Russia’s actions in Chechnya, was assassinated on October 7, 2006. She is one of six reporters for the newspaper to have been murdered in connection with their investigations.

In April 2017, an article in Novaya Gazeta brought the attacks on gay men in Chechnya to international attention, reporting that over 100 men had been rounded up by police, with three being killed. These reports were later backed up the US State Department and the International Crisis Group.

These “concentration camps” had been set up in February 2017, with gay men being abducted, held prisoner and tortured there. It’s said that police found contact information for several gay men on the phone of a Chechen man who had been stopped for an alleged drugs offence.

Kadyrov’s press secretary Alvi Karimov, dismissed the report as “absolute lies”, but followed that up with a bizarre claim that there are no gay people in Chechnya and added the chilling message: “If there were such people in Chechnya, law-enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”

An activist stands naked, wrapped in a rainbow flag, in a mock cage
An activist stands naked wrapped in a rainbow flag (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

It later emerged that some families were doing just that – killing the gay members of their families themselves. In one shocking report, a teenager was pushed to his death from a ninth-floor balcony by an uncle after he was outed.

State Duma Deputy of Chechnya Magomed Selimkhanov added: “In Chechnya, there are no gays, so there is no attitude toward them. Personally, I think that they belong two metres under the ground.”

Two camps were initially reported on, based in the villages of Argun and Tsotsi-Yurt, but further investigations revealed a further four jails for gay people, bringing the total number believed to be in the Chechen Republic up to six. One was later destroyed and moved to a new location.

It was reported that the authorities running these camps had been torturing inmates with electric shocks and other methods to force them to out other people who could then be rounded up.

Since the news broke, international groups and Russian LGBT activists have attempted to evacuate those who have survived their ordeal and escaped, and also to save vulnerable Chechens yet to be picked up by the police.

Following the articles in Novaya Gazeta, Human Rights Watch has published several statements and reports on the situation in Chechnya, confirming that the persecution was being orchestrated by the top figures in government.

Later, Britain’s deputy foreign secretary Sir Alan Duncan said that sources revealed Ramzan Kadyrov planned to eliminate all members of the gay community by the start of this year’s Ramadan.

Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Milashina, who wrote the initial reports about the tragedy, was forced into hiding after facing death threats.

In June 2017, a journalist named Hind Hassan from Vice gained access to Chechnya’s ‘concentration camps’ for gay men, where the authorities denied the presence of gay men in the institutions.

Prison warden Ayub Kataev said: “My officers would not even want to touch such people — if they exist—let alone beating or torturing them.”

In July, activists said the purge had been restarted by the authorities, and later the names of 27 people killed by the authorities in Chechnya in a single bloody night were published, with 56 people in total believed to have been killed.

The Russian LGBT Network confirmed that some but not all of the men killed were gay and bisexual. The Kremlin said these reports were “unsubstantiated”.

How has the international community reacted to the persecution of gay people in Chechnya?

While few productive steps have been taken, there has been a significant outcry from the international community in response to the events in Chechnya. Foreign ministers from the US, UK and the European Union all urged Russia to urgently intervene.

“The human rights situation for LGBT people in Russia has deteriorated significantly in recent years and we continue to voice our serious concern with Russian authorities at all levels,” said Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay.

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov ( Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

The censure continued – with the UN’s LGBT rights expert Vitit Muntarbhorn and others issuing a warning to Russia over the continued persecution and 50 members of US Congress signing a letter condemning the anti-gay purge.

However, when Donald Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian officials in June 2017, he later admitted to not even bringing up the issue of the homophobic purge.

Following the lead of several human rights groups, in mid-July dozens of US politicians wrote a letter urging Donald Trump, pleading with him to speak out against the persecution of gay men in Chechnya.

A bipartisan resolution had previously been passed by Congress condemning the actions of the Chechnyan authorities.

Hundreds of LGBT activists gathered outside the Russian Embassy in London in April to protest the detention of gay men in Chechnya, carrying placards stating: “LGBT+ rights are human rights, Queer lives matter, close the camps.” There have been similar protests around the world, from Berlin to Spain, Australia and beyond.

What is Russia doing about the gay purge in Chechnya?

Unsurprisingly given the attitude to LGBT people in the wider Russian Federation, protests from citizens, governments and international bodies have fallen on deaf ears. The Kremlin initially said that there is no “reliable information” about the persecution of gay men in Chechnya, later adding that investigators found “no evidence” of the purge.

Russian authorities went on to reportedly detain 17 young activists who had been protesting in St Petersberg on May Day against the events in Chechnya.

Later in May, the Russian government finally agreed to investigate the allegations of homophobic persecution in Chechnya, with President Vladimir Putin allowing Russia’s human rights ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova to look into the “well-known information or rumours” about what is happening to people “with a non-traditional sexual orientation”.

Many people are protesting against the 'gay genocide' in Chechnya
Activists protest the “gay genocide” in Chechnya (Getty Images)

However, the Russian Embassy later said that no LGBT people have been persecuted in Chechnya, adding that reports of a gay purge have been used as “a propaganda campaign against Russia around the world”.

A foreign ministry spokesperson then later appeared to threaten a Finnish journalist with “a trip to the Chechen Republic” so he could “find answers to all his questions” – echoing Ramzan Kadyrov challenge to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to visit the region, but with added menace.

While the government has not helped, some Russian citizens have done what they can. The Russian LGBT Network helped evacuate 40 gay men from Chechnya, first to other Russian regions, before enabling them to leave the country.

In May, Lithuania granted asylum to two gay and bi Chechens fleeing the region. One refugee was resettled in Germany, with the foreign ministry official confirming that “a visa was issued and the person was able to come to Germany on June 6”. Another gay man who was resettled in France later opened up about his experience.

What can I do to help gay people in Chechnya?

It’s difficult to know what LGBT+ people and their allies can do to help the community in Chechnya, especially from abroad. Supporting the Russian LGBT Network is one obvious method – the group accepts financial donations online. All Out is supporting the group and also taking donations.

Beyond money, we can all put pressure on our own elected representatives. Write emails, letters and phone your MP in the UK, or your Representative in Congress in the US and ask them to lobby who they can to change things.

Petitions are also being sent to national and international bodies to protest the persecution, including one from PinkNews calling on the Russian authorities to intervene.

Related topics: anti-LGBT laws, Chechnya, concentration camp, Europe, gay men, human rights watch, Novaya Gazeta, Ramzan Kadyrov, Russia, UN, Vladimir Putin

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