At the start of April, news came about of mass detentions and torture of gay people or people perceived to be gay in Chechnya. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta made reports of a ‘coordinated campaign’ in which more than 100 men were abducted and put into secret detention centres. When the newspaper first reported of this, already three men had been killed. The Russian LGBTI network has set up an emergency hotline to come to the aid of these men, after receiving several requests for help with evacuation from the republic of Chechnya. Several escaped and released men are now kept in safe houses in Moscow. They have shared their stories in anonymous interviews, confirming the abduction and telling about continuous humiliation and torture which occurred during their imprisonment.
‘No homosexuality in Chechnya’
In the meantime, the number of deaths has risen to over thirty, but an exact number is unavailable: The campaign is characterized by secrecy, people disappearing and being taken by non-recognizable officers. Homosexuality is not forbidden by law and therefore gay men cannot be held in regular prisons. Besides, the risks for human rights activists to visit Chechnya are high, says Amnesty International’s Programme Director EU & Central Asia, Denis Krivosheev. Chechen authorities have denied the existence of such a campaign, including Chechen leader and president Ramzan Kadyrov. He denies that human rights are routinely abused in his republic and his spokesman has called Novaya's report "an absolute lie", saying that "[y]ou can't detain and repress people who simply don't exist in the republic." Homosexuality is not at all accepted in predominantly Muslim Chechnya, and one of the victims stated: “We’ve always been persecuted but never like this, now they arrest everyone.”
Throughout April Russia was asked to investigate the alleged purge, after continuous actions of international and Russian NGOs and requests of several representatives of governments, including EU High Representative Federica Mogherini. Also German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to intervene, only one day after Russian police arrested about 20 gay-rights protesters demonstrating in St Petersburg against the treatment of gay men in Chechnya. On the 5th of May, Putin said he would ask rights ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova together with the prosecutor general and interior minister to check on the alleged abuse: She is to set up a working group to take complaints from citizens. However, this working group is to be set up in Russia, and not in Chechnya. Kadyrov stated he was ready to co-operate with the Russian federal authorities, but again stated there existed no ‘people of non-traditional orientation’.
Putin and Kadyrov
Chechnya is part of Russia, but has the status of semi-independent republic. This status is not unique for Chechnya, because 22 of the 85 federal subjects (provinces) of Russia are also republics, mostly representing areas of non-Russian ethnicity, such as Tatarstan, Ingushetia, and Dagestan. Other than krais or oblasts, republics have the right to establish their own language and have their own constitution. Nonetheless, the relation that Chechnya has with Russia, above all Kadyrov’s relation to Putin, is special. Ramzan Kadyrov and his father Akhmad were important actors in the two Chechen wars, in which Chechen tried to secede from Russia. After two wars and several terrorist attacks (taking hostages in a Moscow theatre in 2002 and a school in Beslan in 2004), Russia installed a pro-Russian Chechen regime. When his father was assassinated in 2004, Ramzan Kadyrov joined the government and was finally installed as president in 2007 by Putin, which appeared to have made a personal deal with him. Immediately, Kadyrov introduced more Islamic rules, such as prohibiting alcohol and asking women to cover their hair, stating he wanted “to make Chechnya more Islamic than the Islamists”. During his presidency, he has been connected to several torture and murder cases. His rule has often been said to oppose the Russian constitution, but so far, Putin has done little to oppose Kadyrov. The investigation to the alleged purge will probably have little effect for the victims, yet it shows that Kadyrov cannot go off leash completely.
‘Cleaning your honour with blood’
The persecution on this scale of (perceived) gay men is unprecedented. However, many of the victims tell that they are more afraid of their families than of these purges. Indeed, the relatives of the victims are responsible for most of the 30 reported deaths, also known as ‘honour killings’. A witness who survived said that detainees are often released and returned to their families by the authorities. “They summoned his parents and his brothers who all came. They said to them, 'Your son is a homosexual, sort it out or we’ll do it ourselves.’ The family took him and killed him in the forest. They buried him there. They didn’t even give him a funeral." Honour killings are still practice, and the culprits are often not being punished. This happens to both men and women who damage their family’s honour. Recently, it was reported that a boy of 17 years old was pushed off a balcony by his uncle after he confided his secret to an Islamic scholar (mullah). According to Novaya Gazeta, homophobia has increased in Chechnya since early March a gay rights group had applied for permits to stage gay rights rallies across Russia, including in Muslim-majority regions.