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Massive persecutions of sexual minorities in Chechnya – one year later

Over a year has passed since the Russian independent press outlet Novaya Gazeta first published information detailing the massive persecutions and aggression against members of the LGBT community in the Chechen Republic.

July 3, 2018 - Sławomir Kirdzik - Articles and Commentary

Meeting with Head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov. June 15 2018 Photo: www.kremlin.ru (cc)

According to the reports, people suspected of being non-heterosexual are being kidnapped and then tortured in special prisons (often called concentration camps for gays). The main objective of these repressions have been to obtain information about other people that might be gay, if they committed any homosexual acts and if they identified themselves as homosexual. What do we know about their situation today?

Many eyewitnesses, escapees or people who tried to obtain help from NGOs have informed Russian journalists about large numbers of tortured and dead. Most of the detainees were returned to their families, leaving their future in the hands of clans which can turn their lives into a nightmare because of strict cultural and religious regimes involving shaming. The revelation of these atrocities lead to an immediate reaction from LGBT activists in Russia and mobilised thousands of people in the West to demonstrate against the policies of the Chechen authorities. It also revived the topic of human rights in the North Caucasus region. Another consequence was also several investigations into the matter organised by journalists and activists. As a result, an information sharing network was set up in the beginning of April 2018 by the Russian LGBT-Network (Российская ЛГБТ-сеть) in Moscow. It became a place where  journalists and activists could share information about the persecutions in Chechnya.

The shaming of the son

To fully understand the incidents in Chechnya, one must go back to the beginning of April 2017 when the first story was published on the matter by Novaya Gazeta‘s Elena Milashina. According to the report, since the end of the Second Russian-Chechen war under the despotic rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, massive persecutions of the local LGBT community have been taking place in Chechenya. People suspected of harboring non-traditional sexual preferences, have been kidnapped and imprisoned in special camps.

Those, who survived after admitting their own sexual orientation, were treated like criminals. Their families were called to the detention center and asked, if this person was their son or daughter. The family is then faced with two options: allow the guards to murder their kids or take back their child and live with the public shame and scrutiny of their family in a place were issues as perceived honor is a mater of life and death. In many of the cases mentioned by the Russian LGBT-Network young people that were returned were often murdered or attempted to escape from Chechnya and from the Russian Federation.

To help them escape from hell

Immediately after receiving information about the persecutions, the Russian LGBT-Network started a protection system for LGBT people, who felt their lives were in danger. From the very beginning, activists from the Network, with help of Novaya Gazeta journalists, tried to uncover the scale of violence in Chechnya and most importantly contact any people whose life was in danger. A contact line for Chechens was activated. The goal was simple – to protect as many of them as possible. It was of vital importance to discover what had happened to those who had disappeared. Their evacuation was the only option, because organisers feared that Chechen authorities, Chechen minorities living in bigger cities in central Russia and family members could try to harass or even murder the evacuated targeted Chechens. For now, it is known that most of the people who have managed to escape have been transported to Moscow and St. Petersburg and other places in the West.

Disappeared singer

The world heard about the situation of sexual minorities in the region again in August 2017, when the well known Russian singer Zelimkhan Bakaev, an ethnic Chechen, disappeared in Grozny. He had decided to attend his sister’s wedding prior to his disappearance. A few other victims of persecution confirmed that there was a possibility that he was kidnapped by Chechen security officers. His family attempted to unearth what had happened, appealing to Ramzan Kadyrov, to start an official investigation. The plea was left unanswered. There was unofficial information that he had decided to go back to Moscow or even leave to Germany. A few months after disappearing, the Russian LGBT-Network confirmed that Zelimkhan had died after long and brutal tortures. The reason for his arrest was supplied by other kidnapped people from the Chechen show-business, accused themselves of being gay.

To kill those, who do not exist

Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, has denied that massive persecutions take place within Chechnya. He claims there are no homosexuals in the republic. The Chechen authorities also declared, that if there were any, they should be eliminated from the society for unlawful (non-traditional) lifestyles. Acts of aggression and hate-speech, aimed at members of the local LGBT community from the rest of society suggest such attitudes  are accepted and encouraged by the radical Kadyrov regime.

The exact scale of the persecutions is unknown. All of the collected information comes from eyewitnesses and friends of the disappeared. However, it is safe to estimate that the number killed since February 2017 is far greater than initially thought.

The next act of breaking human rights

Since the beginning of the first Russo-Chechen war, there have been many occurrences of human rights abuses. Russian units targeted Chechen civilians in order to stop the growing wave of terrorism. After 9/11, Russian authorities began to refer to the partisans in Chechnya as terrorists. A lot of people disappeared or were murdered for supposed terrorism or harboring terrorists. During the two wars entire cities and villages across the territory of the future republic were bombed and destroyed including Grozny, its capital city. Many perished, became internally displaced and others escaped via Ingushetia and Dagestan to bigger cities in Russia.

In the last few years, many journalists, human rights activists, and opposition politicians have disappeared or been killed. The authorities in both Russia and Chechnya have largely ignored condemnation by rights groups or state actors. The persecution of the LGBT-community members can be viewed through the prism of Kadyrov strengthening his grasp on Chechenya through violating a new set of human rights. As the flow of information is so weak and the material gathered so incomplete, we are unlikely to know the true extent of the mentioned persecutions.

Sławomir Kirdzik is a second year student at the Centre for Studies of Eastern Europe (SEW) at the University of Warsaw. His interests are Chechenya, its human rights situation since the First Chechen War as well as Russian politics, culture and history. 

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