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Formally, the Republic of Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation, but it does function as a quasi-autonomous state with its own legal code. The Chechen authorities, which have been led by Ramzan Kadyrov for a decade, have established tyranny in the region, and that with the Kremlin’s blessing. They effectively control virtually all aspects of life, such as politics, religion, academics, and even family matters. On various occasions, Kadyrov has endorsed polygamy, compulsory wearing of the hijab for women in public, and collective punishment for the families of those involved in the Islamist underground.
According to Amnesty International (2017), any form of dissent is brutally suppressed. Human rights defenders, media workers and political activists from in- and outside of Chechnya, as well as members of the public criticizing the Chechen leadership and its policies, face threats, harassment and often physical violence. The murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006 and the abduction and assassination of Chechen human rights defender Natalia Estemirova in 2009 are only two examples of Chechnya’s atrocious human rights violations.
Chechnya’s Islamic society is strictly conservative and based on strong codes of family and clan allegiance. According to locals, a gay relative is seen as a stain on the whole family and siblings of a gay man will face difficulties in finding a spouse because of the shame. Amnesty International reports that “honor killings” are still a practice in this region of the North Caucasus. Men who have “tarnished the family’s honor” by being gay or believed to be gay are not only likely to be disowned but also face a very real risk of being murdered by their own family members. These usually enjoy impunity for the crime. Several violent videos that have recently been published threaten gay activists.
While same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized in 1993, Russians in ‘nontraditional sexual relationships’ do not have any legal recognition, and no law prohibits discrimination because of sexual orientation. In 2013, a law banning the ‘propaganda of homosexuality among minors’ was passed. This law was condemned by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and by international human rights groups for its broad and ambiguous wording. Critics see it as an effective ban on promoting the rights and culture of the LGBTQI community publicly.
On 1 April, the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that Chechen militias and security forces launched a major coordinated operation against suspected gay men. They cited Russian federal law enforcement officials as their main source, who blamed the local authorities. From that date on, multiple credible international sources, among them Human Rights Watch, have inquired this situation and confirmed that in late March of this year, at least one hundred gay men (or believed to be gay) were abducted, detained and tortured in secret prisons in and around Grozny, the Chechen caital. Novaya Gazeta has verified information about at least four men killed by the authorities, but its sources claim that many more have been murdered as well. The newspaper further reports that among the detained are influential representatives of Chechnya’s government who were close to ist leader Kadyrov, and two famous TV presenters.
News outlet CNN spoke to a survivor of one of these so-called concentration camps. He explained that he was beaten and electrocuted in order to confess the names of other gay men. The experts , a panel of five advisers to the United Nations Human Rights Council, wrote : “The arrested men are subjected to physical and verbal abuse, torture including with electric shocks, beatings, insults and humiliations. They are forced to give contact details of other gay people and threatened with having their sexual orientation disclosed to their family and community — a move which could put them at risk of ‘honor killings.’”
For this campaign, investigators posed as men looking for homosexual dates. Radio Svoboda’s inquiry discovered that some prisoners were released to their families if they promised to murder them. Queer men have since started fleeing the region. The persecution intensified after the gay and lesbian rights organization Gayrussia.ru, based in Moscow, applied for gay pride parade permits in four Muslim North Caucasus cities, although not in Chechnya itself. The applications were rejected and resulted in anti-gay counterdemonstrations. The organization had not focused on Muslim districts, but had applied for permits in nearly 100 municipal governments across the Russian Federation. Their attempt was to collect the inevitable denials to use them in a case regarding freedom of assembly and LGBTI rights before the European Court of Human Rights.
The Chechen authorities denied the reports, calling them an attempt to discredit the region’s reputation, foster sodomy, and undermine traditional values. Ramzan Kadyrov’s spokesperson Alvi Karimov went as far as to say that it is simply not possible to detain and oppress people who just do not exist in Chechnya. He explains that even if there were such people, it would not be the authorities’ problem, as the families would themselves send these people to a place of no return. Kheda Saratova, member of the Chechnya’s Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights (!), stated that the repression and even the murder of gays are encouraged in their society, because homosexuality was actually ‘worse than war’. She proudly admitted that the justice system would approach an ‘honor killing’ with understanding. A spokesman for Chechnya’s interior ministry even tried to sell off the reports as “an April fool’s joke”.
However, according to the British newspaper Independent, a British foreign minister knows that Ramzan Kadyrov has plans to eliminate the gay community in the country before Ramadan starts (March 26). In conclusion, the experts stated: “These are acts of persecution and violence on an unprecedented scale in the region and constitute serious violations of the obligations of the Russian Federation under international human rights law.”
The international human rights NGO Amnesty International urges its members, as well as the general public, to write appeals to the Chairman of the Investigation Committee of the Russian Federation, Aleksandr Bastrykin, and the Acting Head of the Investigation Committee for the Chechen Republic, Sergei Sokolov. The letters should request immediate, effective and thorough investigations into the abductions and killings of suspected homosexual men in Chechnya and the persecution of its perpetrators according to Russian jurisdiction. Furthermore, the government needs to ensure the safety of all those at risk due to their sexual orientation and strongly condemn discriminatory comments made by official authorities. We as individuals should also remind both the Russian and the Chechen authorities of their international human rights obligation to prohibit discrimination and to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.
President Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the Kremlin knew nothing about these allegations beforehand, and that it had no reason to doubt the Chechen leader’s claims that no persecution based on sexual orientation is happening. Peskov went on to suggest to people who ‘in their opinion’ have suffered from abuses by law enforcement officials to file an official complaint and go to court. He did not mention any kind of protection for the victims. However, most victims and witnesses are too afraid to even anonymously talk to human rights monitors or journalists. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both confirm that in fact, filing complaints against officials is extremely dangerous in Chechnya. Retaliation, including death threats, by local authorities against those seeking justice and their families is imminent.
In my opinion, it is crucial to highlight and bring to international attention just how vulnerable the Chechen LGBTI community currently is. This issue needs more and frequent media coverage. Not only in the news, but also public figures, especially the ones often fighting for gay rights, should speak out and raise awareness of the situation on TV and on social media . Only then will it spark even bigger international outrage, which will be the first step to attacking the problem.
The United Nations experts already demanded that the Chechen government immediately stop the persecution and release all detainees, and that the Russian government thoroughly investigate this ‘prophylactic sweep’ and bring the persecutors to justice. “The Russian Federation must officially state that it does not tolerate any form of incitement to violence, social stigmatization of homosexuality or hate speech, and does not condone discrimination or violence against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Russia always seems to skip any kind of investigation and prosecution of anti-gay violence, in the same way as it does with accountability for torture, enforced disappearances, and extra- judicial killings. That alone should already spark key international actors to step in to save people’s lives and dignity, before it leads to yet more blood and suffering. (Human Rights Watch, 2017)
Western governments as well should put pressure on the Russian government to take immediate and effective action. Moreover, governments should assist the people at risk to leave Chechnya and find safe sanctuary outside of Russia. This assistance consists in providing and expediting humanitarian visas, refugee resettlement, or any other permission for entry.
Human rights activists, such as the Canada-based charity Rainbow Railroad, are trying to get dozens of gay Chechens out of the country. They do not believe in the men’s safety anywhere on Russian ground. The problem with European embassies is that they only grant asylum for people already in the country. They do not give any kind of visa to those planning to seek asylum upon arrival. Furthermore, human rights defenders must be protected from threats, attacks, and harassment. For this, the Kremlin should publicly acknowledge and recognize the legitimate work carried out by human rights defenders. (Human Rights Watch, 2017)
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, urged Putin publicly during a joint press conference to exert his influence to “ensure that minorities’ rights are protected”. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has released in an official statement that she is “disturbed by reports of kidnapping, torture, and murder of people in Chechnya based on their sexual orientation and those persecuted by association.” She calls on the Chechen authorities to immediately investigate the issue and to hold anyone involved accountable, and to take steps to prevent future abuses.
Haley reminds: “We are against all forms of discrimination, including against people based on sexual orientation. When left unchecked, discrimination and human rights abuses can lead to destabilization and conflict.” The Human Rights Campaign has also asked Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to bring up the allegations with President Putin. While both former VP Joe Biden and former Secretary of State and winner of the popular vote of the 2016 Presidential elections Hillary Clinton condemned what is happening in Chechnya, we are still waiting on Donald Trump to make a statement –or a tweet – about this serious human rights issue.
Because of the current international political climate and Russia’s seat on the UN Security Council, I do not recommend any armed intervention or trying to send in peacekeeping troups.
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