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April 20, 2017

Crackdown on Gay Men in Chechnya

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Gay and Bisexual Men in Chechnya Under Attack

On April 1, 2017, independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that Chechen authorities detained more than one hundred gay men over the prior week “in connection with their nontraditional sexual orientation, or suspicion of such.” According to reports, three of the men have been killed, and the death toll may be even higher. Survivors reported beatings and torture as well as being forced to disclose the names of other local gay men. The author cited sources within the Chechen government and Russian authorities as well as LGBT activists.

Per Novaya Gazeta, the crackdown comes after a Russian LGBT group’s filed official requests to permit LGBT pride parades in various cities throughout Russia. While the group did not plan a parade in Chechnya, the announcement was widely publicized in the media, sparking outrage and homophobic protests. Elina Milashina, the article’s author, stated that sources within the Russian secret service explicitly linked the detentions to these events, calling them “a preventative sweep.” An earlier sweep prompted by the February detention of a man who had the names of many gay—or presumed gay—men in his phone. Other sources are not sure whether this episode triggered this crisis and note that the mistreatment of LGBT people has long roots in Chechnya and that there may have been other triggers for this.

The Current Situation

As of June, it appears that new detentions have stopped and many men have been released, often after paying bribes or after government officials received assurances that the families of these men would deal with the issue themselves-a reference to the continued practice of “honor killings.” It is not clear whether there may still be men in detention as the existence of these detention centers has always been secret information. Some believe that detentions may ramp up again at the very end of June, at the conclusion of Ramadan.

In the very beginning, the Russian LGBT Network released a statement expressing alarm over the reported detentions, abuse, and murders. The organization is providing support to the victims and established an emergency hotline for those in need of assistance and evacuation from the region. Already, dozens of people have been moved out of Chechnya and some have been moved out of Russia altogether. The Network has coordinated with a range of embassies to broker deals to get some of these men to safety. 

Milashina has been forced into hiding after receiving death threats. Chechen clerics and authorities have directed threatening messages at Novaya Gazeta and its staff.

The Context

LGBT people in Russia face a climate of widespread societal homophobia and transphobia even though homosexuality is no longer criminalized. In 2013, Russia passed a federal law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” The law breeds a permissive climate for violence and discrimination against members of Russia’s LGBT community. The Chechnya region is known for its poor record on human rights, with security forces acting with impunity against marginalized populations.

Russian Authorities Deny the Abuses

A spokesperson for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called the reports of detention and abuse “absolute lies and disinformation.” He denied the existence of LGBT people in the region and alluded to so-called “honor killings” of LGBT people, saying that “if such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.”

A spokesperson for President Vladimir Putin questioned the veracity of the reports, saying they are "a question for law enforcement” and “not on the Kremlin's agenda." 

Later, federal officials suggested that those who feel they had been abused should file reports with the local authorities.

An initial investigation, conducted by Chechen authorities, turned up no evidence of any wrongdoing and was widely understood to be a sham. A new federal investigation is underway and Russian activists, while wary, are holding out some hope that there will be results. 

International Outrage and Response

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The U.S. Department of State condemned the attacks and called on the Russian authorities to conduct a thorough investigation. The Department of State also expressed concern about “the widespread discrimination and violence against LGBTI persons in Russia or any society” and called on the Russian government “to protect all people from discrimination and violence.” This was followed by a statement from U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who called on Chechen authorities to "immediately investigate these allegations, hold anyone involved accountable, and take steps to prevent future abuses."

President Donald Trump has made no mention of the crisis unfolding in Chechnya. In mid-June, under questioning from Congressman David Cicilline, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged that the situation in Chechnya was on his “pending list” of issues to discuss with his Russian counterparts. 

The president of the European Parliament strongly condemned the homophobic attacks while the Secretary General of the Council of Europe urged Russia’s High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate the attacks. Numerous international human rights organizations have expressed outrage and called for an investigation. The spokesperson for the European Union also called for “prompt, effective and thorough investigations into the reports of abductions and killings of gay men in Chechnya.”

Ensuring Justice

Despite international condemnation, the persecution of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya continues. The United States should work with the international community to develop a coordinated response to the crisis, ensuring the safety of the victims and accountability for the perpetrators of these egregious human rights violations. In addition, the U.S. should engage in efforts to relocate these men to safety – both by assisting them in travel to safer countries and by providing opportunities for them to come to the United States.

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