Despite international pressure, the detention and torture of suspected gay men by the Chechen government since late March has continued, and more secret concentration-camp style prisons have been discovered.
A journalist who helped expose the brutal persecution has gone into hiding after threats from Chechen state officials and Chechen Muslim clerics. Putin and the Kremlin in Russia has been cynically turning a blind eye, and the Russian police have detained LGBT activists campaigning against this on May Day in St. Petersburg. But after international pressure the Kremlin reluctantly opened an investigation into the situation.
Four more secret prisons have been discovered — there are six in total — with over 100 men detained, three people confirmed killed, and twenty suspected dead. Those men who have been released have often been released because police believe their family will kill them. Police and Kadyrov — the Chechen leader — have encouraged such “honour killings”.
Chechnya is a republic in southern Russia with a conservative and deeply homophobic society and an increasingly authoritarian state. Very few people are openly gay, and much of the torture aims to find the identity of other gay men. Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow-based newspaper which first reported this brutal violence has faced serious threats and one reporter has gone into hiding. An adviser to Kadyrov and a group of Chechen Muslim clerics called for retribution against the newspaper.
It wasn’t allegations of the secret prisons or the torture that affronted them, rather the claim that there were gay men in Chechnya. Kadyrov’s spokesperson described the report as a lie on this basis, and others in his office have demanded apologies. Six of the newspaper’s journalists have been killed or died in suspicious circumstances since the publication started 24 years ago. Two —Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova — were shot dead over investigations of human rights abuses in Chechnya. So when the newspaper received two envelopes of a mysterious white powder in recent weeks, they were not taking these threats lightly. Elena Milashina, one of the reporters, has fled Russia over these latest threats.
The Kremlin has continued to turn a blind eye, as with anti-LGBT violence across Russia, encouraging victims to report abuse to Chechen authorities. Furthermore, Putin’s spokesperson states that since no one has publicly come out as a victim, the Kremlin has no reason to disbelieve Kadyrov’s denials. Seventeen young LGBT activists have been arrested and detained by Russian police for protesting against the persecution in Chechnya, joining a May Day march in St Petersburg.
Some were lying on the road playing dead, smeared with fake blood and covered with Chechen and rainbow flags, whilst others held placards calling for Kadyrov to be tried in the International Court of Justice. International protests around the world and several international bodies have called for an end to these human rights violations, and for the central Russian government to intervene. This has pressured the Kremlin at least to open an investigation into the situation and to condemn threats to journalists.
The international pressure is an important, limited, brake on the Chechnyan authorities, and it should be increased. However, there are dangers. Homophobia in Chechnya is linked both to political and conservative Islam, and to nationalism, and has been strengthened by national and ethnic conflicts.
Kadyrov has already responded demagogically to the international “attack… attempt[ing] … to blacken our society, lifestyle, traditions and customs.” There is a risk that international pressure will be manipulated to further feed nationalism, positioning Kadryov as a protector of Chechen society, and gay rights as something foreign actors are attempting to impose from outside. This would further strengthen Kadryov’s authoritarian leadership, and further harm LGBT people as they are used as a political football.
The Russian LGBT Network is helping to evacuate and assist those persecuted in Chechnya, and there have been calls for the UN to implement a similar programme. They have been in contact with around 60 people so far, successfully supporting half of them. To tackle the root of the problem requires ending the pervasive homophobia in Chechen society and the authoritarianism of the Chechen state.
We also need to offer practical solidarity to those fighting for LGBT rights, and for human rights against state repression in Chechnya. To the extent that groups are doing this, they are operating underground and are small. Finding, contacting them and supporting them is far from straightforward. We should support those in Chechnya and Russia pushing for secularism and for an internationalist perspective that respects the Chechen right to national self-determination, whilst fighting both Chechen and Russian nationalism, with all the conservative ideas they bring.