This Saturday, global LGBTI advocacy group All Out is encouraging people to hold worldwide demonstrations to remind people of the anti-gay purge in Chechnya.
Global pressure prompted Chechen authorities to halt its persecution of gay people. However, if the region’s homophobia goes unmonitored, arrests and persecution could return. The LGBTI community in Chechnya continues to need global support.
But what has happened over the past year and what’s the situation now? We spoke to campaigners and human rights advocates to find out.
What happened in Chechnya last year?
Twelve months ago news first broke of the arrests of gay men in the semi-autonomous Russian region of Chechnya. It was reported around 100 men had been detained. The arrests began in February 2017.
Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta first reported on the situation, but worldwide media soon picked up the story. Reports emerged of men being held in secret camps in the predominantly Islamic region. They were being tortured and detained without trial.
At least three men disappeared and were believed to have been killed.
In some cases, it’s thought men were subject to ‘honor’ killings by their families after being returned to them by security forces.
Chechnya is led by President Ramzan Kadyrov, who denied arrests were taking place. However, he made no secret of his personal belief that homosexuality is wrong.
A spokesman for the government even denied there were gay people in Chechnya, suggesting – ominously – if any such people existed, their families would take care of the matter.
A global fundraising effort raised funds to help local advocates in Russia help smuggle gay men out of Chechnya. Countries such as France are among those who have publicly taken in gay refugees from the country. Over 100 people have now been helped to leave the country, with assistance from the Russian LGBT Network organization.
One man known to have disappeared is pop singer Zelimkhan Bakaev. Many believe he was detained as a result of the anti-gay purge and is now dead.
‘He remains disappeared since August 2017,’ says Tanya Lokshina, Russia Program Director with Human Rights Watch.
‘After all these time and given that he was kidnapped by local security officials, there are strong grounds to believe he’s dead. In fact, Ramzan Kadyrov hinted at his death in an “honor killing” in a televised statement earlier this year.’
Indeed, one of the most sinister aspects of the ‘purge’ was it was often carried out in collusion with the families of victims. BBC Russia spoke with a gay man and woman this week who had both fled Chechnya and were waiting to get out of Russia. They were in the so-called ‘Transit Zone’ (typically St Petersburg or Moscow) – away from Chechnya and staying in a sympathetic supporter’s apartment until they could get out of the country.
‘My relatives found out by chance, or maybe because of my stupidity, I corresponded with a guy and did not delete my message,’ said one man, Ruslan.
A relative asked to borrow his phone and found the messages. He had been corresponding with the man, whom he had met and enjoyed a relationship, for the previous three years.
Ruslan’s family subsequently took away his passport, phone and other documents. They kept him locked in a room for the next month, until he was able to escape.
Once he did, he was able to contact his boyfriend. The man came for him and helped him get to Moscow. He is now awaiting support to leave the country.
‘There was a big cleansing of gays in Chechnya … some were caught, taken to cellars, beaten violently, some were not found, relatives sometimes did not even look – they wanted to wash off the shame.’
Has international pressure had an impact on the Chechen authorities?
‘There was a massive international outcry after the abuses came to light,’ says Matt Beard, Executive Director of All Out. ‘All Out and its partners delivered a petition with 2 million names, we successfully lobbied Angela Merkel to raise the issue when she met Putin and the international media brought the story to millions.
‘Without this international pressure and visibility, we believe the terror may have continued unabated.’
Are gay men are still being arrested/detained or harrassed in Chechnya?
All Out says it has ‘reason to believe that there are still some men being illegally detained.’ This view is backed up by Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch.
‘The big “cleansing” operation that came to be known as “anti-gay purge” went on from late February till roughly mid-April 2017. Since then, several unlawful detentions have been reported, including that of Bakaev,’ she told Gay Star News.
Did Chechen authorities act with the approval of the Russian government in its crackdown on LGBT citizens?
‘It doesn’t seem that the purge was sanctioned by Moscow and the Kremlin most likely instructed local authorities to suspend the purge following on a staggering international outcry,’ says Lokshina.
Will anyone be brought to justice for the persecution of LGBTI people in Chechnya?
The Russian LGBT Network held a news conference this week and criticized the lack of investigation by Russian authorities. Two pretrial investigations were launched last year – one by the Investigative Committee of Russia and one by the Federal Investigative Committee. The latter was launched following a complaint filed Maxim Lapunov, who was one of those victimized in Chechnya.
Lapunov is originally from Siberia but had been living and working in Chechnya for two years when he was dragged into a car by two men. He went on to recount being held for 12 days in a blood-soaked cell, beaten with sticks and threatened and humiliated by police.
Lapunov was released after his family reported him missing and friends put up ‘Missing’ posters with his face around the Chechen capital. He left Chechnya for Moscow.
Both pretrial investigations are still in process.
‘We want justice for the victims in Chechnya, for their relatives and their loved ones,’ said Svetlana Zakharova, Communication Manager and Board Member of the Russian LGBT Network.
‘The Russian authorities must fulfill their duties, and start a serious investigation of this crime against humanity.
‘The Russian authorities have not done anything to stop the atrocities or to punish those who are responsible. We still don’t know exactly how many people suffered during this state-sponsored campaign aimed to “purify Chechen blood.” The Russian LGBT Network has evacuated over 100 people from Chechnya, and it is not over.’
‘We are still awaiting an impartial and thorough investigation,’ says Simon Ware, Chair of Amnesty UK’s LGBTI Network, in a blog posting this week.
‘The Chechen government still won’t admit that gay or bi men even exist in Chechnya. A number of LGBTI refugees from Chechnya have found new places to call home around the world. However, even in their new lives they have too frequently faced persecution, while their families at home have been threatened.’
World condemnation – but not from Trump
Several world leaders condemned the reported purge in Chechnya. UK Prime Minister Theresa May called it ‘utterly barbaric’. Germany’s Angela Merkel used a meeting with Russian President with Vladimir Putin last May to ask him to do more to protect the rights of minorities.
However, one notable voice not to mention the situation has been President Donald Trump – to the dismay of human rights campaigners in the US and around the globe.
‘Over the past year, this White House has remained unconscionably silent as men suspected of being gay or bisexual have been rounded up, tortured, imprisoned, and even killed in the Russian republic of Chechnya,’ said HRC President Chad Griffin in a statement this week.
‘Enough is enough. Donald Trump must end his shameful silence and unequivocally condemn these horrific atrocities for what they are — crimes against humanity.’
It’s been one year and still no White House condemnation of the Anti-LGBTQ violence in Chechnya?
Send the administration a message: Time’s up. https://t.co/twGeJmDfTa
— Human Rights Campaign (@HRC) April 5, 2018
What can people do if they are concerned about Russia or Chechnya’s treatment of LGBTI citizens?
‘Call for an effective investigation into the purge – and specifically into a complaint officially filed by one of the victims, Maxim Lapunov,’ says Lokshina.
‘Call for [Russia’s] infamous ‘gay propaganda law’ to be repealed, as the law is discriminatory, turns gay people into second class citizens, and thereby emboldens perpetrators of violent attacks against them.’
The Russian LGBT Network is the main LGBT advocacy group in Russia. It carries regular updates on its websites and can always benefit from financial donations to continue its work. It’s also published advice for how people can help support the LGBTI community in Chechnya.
Why are All Out demonstrations taking place this Saturday?
‘One year ago this week, the news broke that state authorities in Chechnya were rounding up men perceived to be gay or bi and taking them to illegal detention centres,’ says a spokesperson for All Out.
‘Here, they were starved, humiliated and tortured. Some were killed. The events around the globe on April 7 are designed to honour those who died, express solidarity with survivors and make clear to the Russian authorities that the world is watching.
‘We want to send a clear message that we will not be silent until a full and impartial investigation of these abuses has been concluded and those responsible have been brought to justice.’