Russian activists are sounding the alarm on a new wave of gay purges in Chechnya, with reports alleging that 40 people have been detained and at least two killed. The reports are consistent with similar accounts dating back to 2016, when the Russian LGBT Network first alerted the international community of the detainment, torture and extrajudicial killings of numerous gay people in Chechnya. The Chechen police and by extension, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov are implicated in these state-orchestrated campaigns— all acting with impunity due to a close relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
According to the Russian LGBT Network, this “new wave of persecution” follows a similar pattern to the previous crackdowns, with one person being detained, interrogated and forced to give up the contacts of other gay individuals in the area. NPR reports that this latest wave of mass-detainment occured after the arrest of an administrator of VKontakte, a popular social media-messaging group. The Chechen authorities were able identify other gay individuals after searching through his phone contacts. Because of the ease with which the police are able to discover the names of other gay and bisexual individuals, LGBT groups in the area are advising that all LGBT people delete any information that could be incriminating, going so far as to say they should change their number and destroy their cellular device. The same groups urge LGBT people to flee the area, if at all possible.
Though these purges only gained mass-media attention in 2016 and more so in 2017, these crackdowns are nothing new for the LGBT community, with the Russian LGBT Network detailing their findings in a 2017 publication, released with the help of Novaya Gazeta reporter, Elena Milashina. The report notes “the victims testified that similar cases of unlawful arrests and detentions had begun in the late 2000’s,” during which “the police force and military personnel organized set-up dates for gay men to blackmail them and extorted money from gay men in exchange for silence about their sexual orientation/gender identity.”
The report notes that the more recent cases of repression are not scattered or mainly for financial exploitation, but are part of a government sanctioned attempt at elimination of all identities deemed “non-traditional.” This change in pattern is also apparent in recent targeting of gay and bisexual women, whereas before the focus was seemingly only on gay and bisexual men. Women face an additional layer of danger, with the report noting that “lesbian women in Chechnya and nearby republics of the North Caucasus appear to be the most vulnerable in front of the complex traditionalist rhetoric,” and acknowledging that “Female voices have always been silenced by the oppressing customs of masculinity-focused culture.” This accounts for the lack of awareness regarding the persecution of gay and bisexual women in Chechnya and the surrounding republics.
LGBT Chechens do not only fear the police, but their families as well, with many survivors recounting the pressure their relatives were put under to kill them. Multiple reports explain that families of LGBT individuals are encouraged to take matters into their own hands, killing their own children or siblings in an attempt to salvage the family honor. Gay and bisexual women are frequently married off against their will, and those who resist the marriages often meet violent fates. One report notes that consistent with patriarchal society, male relations are encouraged to “wash away the shame” by punishing their female relatives, or turning them over to the authorities. Some survivors explain that relatives are even asked to kill their own family members inside the police station or detention site, with some allegations stating that the special forces police will ask the victim to take their own life.
Kadyrov himself has responded to the allegations of systemic persecution with attempts to invalidate them, stating that gay people do not exist, “In Chechen society, there is no such thing as nontraditional orientation.” In an HBO interview, Kadyrov was asked to respond to these claims and he replied by saying “We don’t have such people here. We don’t have any gays. If there are any,take them to Canada. Praise be to God. Take them far away from us. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them,” going on to say “They are subhuman.”
Putin has also said that LGBT Russians should feel safe, as their identity is not a crime, arguing that there is no form of discrimination in Russian society towards them. His actions,however, tell another tale. In 2013, he signed a federal law, usually referred to as the “gay propaganda” law, which bans the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” The Human Rights Watch has said this law effectively normalizes discrimination, prevents younger people from accessing crucial information about sexuality and gender relations, and works to censor multiple social media, news print and television platforms. After international outrage, Putin was forced to support an investigation into the claims. The investigation was completed and the federal authorities found no evidence of abuse or maltreatment.
The Russian LGBT Network was formally founded in 2006 and mainstreamed in 2008, with the help of other human rights focused organizations. The organization is mostly underground, as those involved face heavy scrutiny, often culminating in attacks on their volunteers and work. The volunteer-run, grassroots movement operates in numerous cities across Russia, running an emergency hotline used to locate and assist those in immediate danger. They work to evacuate LGBT people from various republics, and move them to safe houses in more densely populated areas of Russia, such as Moscow. In some cases, the network attempts to smuggle people out of Russia. The organization also provides legal and psychological help.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) released an equally damning report in December of 2018, citing massive human rights abuses at the hands of Chechen autorites. The OSCE detailed the ability for Kadyrov to act with impunity as he and Putin maintain mutually beneficial relationship, with many of Kadyrov’s actions being excused in the name of fighting extremism and terrorism, an agenda similar to that of Putin.
As of this moment, Kadyrov has refused to personally address the newest allegations. The Russian LGBT Network has mobilized all available volunteers in the area, and have stated they are working to evacuate as many people as possible to safety.
In the meantime, they have cautioned against open expression of sexuality that is deemed “nontraditional.” The Russian LGBT Network has a website capable of accepting donations to keep their emergency hotline running, as well as to fund their work in general.