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Death and terror for LGBT community in Chechnya

 

Members of the LGBT+ community in Chechnya are being held in concentration camp-like conditions, and at least four have been killed. Ramzan Kadyrov, the country’s president, has vowed to ‘eliminate’ all gay men by the end of May.

Over 100 men have reportedly been detained due to their sexuality and Alan Duncan, a spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office who is himself gay, confirmed that Kadyrov wants the LGBT community to be eliminated by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (which begins on May 26th). Duncan said, “Credible reports suggesting that at least four people have been killed and many have been tortured are particularly shocking”.

Some of the men who were tortured in the camps and later released were set free with promises that their families will carry out so-called ‘honour killings’, such is the shame of having an LGBT family member.

The Russian journalist who broke the story, Elena Milashina, a reporter for publication Novaya Gazeta, has had to go into hiding due to the backlash against her discoveries and subsequent reporting. Planning to leave Russia altogether, Milashina and her Novaya Gazeta colleagues received suspect packages of white powder in the mail.

The scale of the horror

With other journalists now investigating, it seems that the initial two torture camps are not the only ones where gay men (and possibly other LGBT people) are being held; four more camps have been identified.

While LGBT+ people have been watching Daesh’s homophobic killings with horror, we now have Chechnya to be aware of, too. And while some international condemnation has been heard, the lack of swift and conclusive censure from many quarters has been notable by its absence. Russian journalists are doing their best to break the story but are risking their own lives to do so, and it is the LGBT press that is leading the way in reporting the story internationally.

There is still a lot that we don’t know. Are all of the prisoners actually gay men? Or is that the default that the wider LGBT+ community has been abridged to? It could be that exclusively gay men have so far been affected, or it could be a kind of reductive shorthand that is very common. Are the camps limited to the six that have been identified so far? And how many prisoners have been taken? What forms of torture are being used? And how many deaths have there been so far?

Alvi Karimov, a spokesperson for President Kadyrov, said, “If there were such people in Chechnya, law-enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning”.

And while Kadyrov may take a cruel pleasure in declaring that there is no LGBT community in Chechnya, we on the outside must watch carefully and take all possible action to save the community that undoubtedly exists, quietly, in private and in fear.

Russia’s response

Just last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin met with Kadyrov in a show of support. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for Putin, denies that the torture camps exist on the basis that nobody has publicly spoken out about having been a victim there.

He stated, “We have no reason not to trust the head of the republic until there are actual complaints in this regard, not abstract, anonymous but actual complaints”.

But who, in an environment like that in modern-day Chechnya, who had just been tortured in prison for being gay, would openly come out and make a complaint? Who would speak out against it, knowing what it was possible for the state to condone? Who would risk the potential reprisals – not just against themselves but against partners, families and friends – by speaking out?

Putin also accused international organisations of a “massive information attack using the most unworthy methods, reality is distorted, attempts are being made to blacken our society, lifestyle, traditions and customs”.

What can we do to help LGBT+ people in Chechnya?

An important priority is to help LGBTQ people to get out of Chechnya if they want or need to.

  1. We must lobby our governments to allow people to claim asylum based on persecution on the grounds of their sexual orientation or gender identity, especially if they are coming from this region.
  2. Amnesty International has launched a campaign. Support it here.
  3. Don’t let social media go quiet on this issue. Appeal to the Russian Embassy in your country and to the Investigatory Committee of Russia at @sledcom_rf. Share relevant articles when you see them.
  4. In Toronto, the Rainbow Railroad helps LGBT people in danger by providing legal help, transportation and visas. They have turned their attention to Eastern Europe and are working with a Russian NGO, the Russian LGBT Network. You can donate to the Rainbow Railroad website here.
  5. A Russian LGBT activist started a petition, which can be signed here.

Photo: karendesuyo/Creative Commons

 

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Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.