19 October, 2021

The Humanitarian Collective

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Hidden in the Shadows: Chechnya’s Secret Anti-Gay Purges

It happened in plain sight. They were taken from their jobs, from their beds, from their families and they were led to a place where no one could hear their screams. A place where no one could realize who they truly were. 

In the Republic of Chechnya, a quasi-independent Russian state located on the border of Georgia, suspected homosexuals have been, and likely still are being, detained and tortured by law enforcement officials for their suspected sexualities. 

Chechnya’s current president, Ramzan Kadyrov is mainly responsible for the purges. In the past, he has used methods of kidnap, torture, and murder to eliminate any possible political opposition and end internal uprisings. Law enforcement officials in Kadyrov’s private militia, the “Kadyrovtsy,” have been accused of administering the purges by monitoring Chechen men by using cameras and microphones in hotels to detect any romantic interactions with those of the same gender before taking them to a network of imprisonment camps. These camps were set up by Chechen government officials to hold individuals who have been arbitrarily arrested for homosexual activity. The largest of them have reportedly been set up in the former military headquarters of Argun.  

The purges were first reported early 2017 when an independent Russian newspaper, the Novaya Gazeta, exposed that government officials under Kadyrov’s administration had detained 100 Chechen gay men and killed three. Reports of killings and detainments of gay Chechens have continued since then.

Russian society under President Vladmir Putin, as a whole, has traditionally not been supportive of the LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning) community, yet Chechnya is a particularly conservative. The region is a Muslim-majority within Russian and holds strong anti-gay sentiments. Chechnya is in fact so conservative that if a family were to have a gay member, other members of the family would have difficulty when trying to marry. It is due to wanting to maintain this harsh conservative society that Chechen leaders resorted to detainment and horrific methods of beating and torture to ensure the absence of homosexuals in their state.

One such account of this treatment comes from a Chechen man known by the name of Adam to the public. He was detained after being tricked into meeting with a gay friend, arriving only to find six Chechen officials waiting at the meeting spot to take him. After admitting he was gay, Adam was taken to a detention facility where he was locked in a room and slept with other men on the concrete floors. He describes his arbitrary detention saying, 

“They woke us up at 5am and let us sleep at 1am. Different people would come in and take turns to beat us. Sometimes they brought in other prisoners, who were told we were gay and were also ordered to beat us.”

Another account comes from a 19-year-old Chechen known publicly as Ricky. He was taken from his work due to his extremely limited gay dating in mid-2018 and then beaten and tortured using methods of electric shock and waterboarding. “I gave up then. I really thought they were going to kill me,” Ricky recalled, “They said it would be better if I was a terrorist than gay.”

Yet, the government officials who committed these arbitrary arrests and callous torturings have received no legal repercussions for their actions from neither the Chechen nor the Russian government. Despite countless testimonies from purge survivors, such as the ones from Adam and Ricky, Chechen officials deny any accusations of responsibility for the detainments and killings. They claim that there are no gay people in Chechnya to begin with, and if there were, their families would send them away or kill them.

Despite their desires to keep the detainments under the rug, the Chechen and Russian governments have been forced to address the issue by the international community, who lit up in 2017 when reports of the purges first surfaced. Although the original outcry was huge – involving many protests and sanctions – nothing really changed the situation in Chechnya. 

In late 2017, the United States imposed sanctions that blacklisted Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Authorities had accused Kadyrov of leading “an administration involved in disappearances and extrajudicial killings.” Chechnya responded to the sanctions by deeming them “illegal, unfriendly,” and “very grotesque.” Leader Kadyrov has also mocked the sanctions on Instagram, continuing to say “I can be proud that I’m out of favour with the special services of the USA.” 

After another spike in anti-gay Chechen detainment and killings in 2019, the US imposed further financial sanctions on Ramzan Kadyrov as well as Ayub Kataev, a Chechen law enforcement official, over human rights abuse and criminal conspiracies. The sanctions had little to no impact on the situation. 

The United Nations has not imposed sanctions like the US but has taken a firm stance against the purges. On April 13, 2017, two weeks after initial reports of the purges were released, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote a letter to Russia expressing concern over the situation. The letter listed eight different requests for information regarding the situation and any investigations that occur looking into it. Chechnya’s response denied the existence of gay Chechens entirely and did not include any of the requested information. UN Experts discussed this saying, 

“We regret the lack of a substantive response to our letter and note with concern that during the last Universal Periodic Review the Russian authorities went as far as saying that ‘it was not possible to find representatives of the LGBT community in Chechnya.’”

About two years later, in response to the 2019 purging spike, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement that urged the Russian Federation to protect human rights and handle the situation. It received no response. 

Several European nations including Austria, Germany, and France have also taken action via condemnation. After the primary reports of torturing and detentions of gays came out in April 2017, Austrian Foreign Minister, Sebastian Kurz, was reported saying the Chechen officials responsible “must be condemned” and that the situation is “causing [him] great concern.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron both spoke directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017, asking him to intervene with “very regular monitoring,” of the situation to protect “minorities’ rights.” These condemnations and conversations have had little impact on the situation and the purgings have continued. 

Russia has launched ‘investigations’ into the Chechen matter. However, these lack legitimacy as Russian investigators involved failed to collect easily accessible data on the cases including GPS location records of mobile phones of those who claim to have been taken. Those who were taken often kept their phones turned on during the detention, making them possible to trace, even though investigators ignore this fact. 

Maksim Lapunov, who was the first person to publicly come forward about being detained and was the center of the 2017 story, had a probe opened into his case, but it was later shut down by a court in Stavropol, his hometown, due to this ‘lack of evidence.’ Lapunov has fled the region after receiving death threats and now lives with asylum in Europe. 

As was with Lapunov, the detainment, torture, and killing of gay men in the Chechen Republic have greatly exacerbated fear in the LGBT community, both among those who have been released as well as those who have yet to be detained, leading many to flee the region. Various international human rights organizations have coordinated these escapes and have helped refugees find homes in other parts of Russia, as well as other European and Western countries. However, many of these individuals are still experiencing trouble seeking asylum and fear they will still be targeted by the Chechen government even after leaving the Republic. 

Many men seek asylum in neighboring countries to escape the region after their release, but many also look to escape before they are detained, believing the authorities will soon find them out. For those who are escaping preemptively, asylum is difficult to obtain as many European countries require evidence of torture to apply. The Russian LGBT Network, a human rights organization dedicated to aiding persecuted Russian homosexuals, has helped individuals who can’t leave Russia to find safehouses within its borders. They have provided safe houses in Russian cities and helped over 150 people leave since 2017.  

Despite the aforementioned difficulties, there have been small amounts of refugees let into European countries from Chechnya, but no European countries have admitted over five. Canada has been particularly welcoming to those escaping Chechnya and has taken a total of 44 asylum-seekers as of January 2020. 

The United States has taken none who are seeking asylum from Chechnya. 

Russia’s refusal to persecute Chechen officials, along with the extreme traditionally conservative Chechen society and the international community’s unwillingness to continually pressure a fair Russian investigation, makes it very, very unlikely the purgings will end in the near future. Only Russia has the power to investigate the hidden detainment camps within their borders, and without their investigation, gay citizens in Chechnya will continue to be brought to the camps and tortured there. The most recent reports of purges were released about a year ago in 2019 and there have been no statements from Chechen officials since about stopping the purges. 

This atrocity continues with little hope for a light at the end of the tunnel, and little anyone can do to stop it. 

Sources:

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Hi! My name is Caitlyn Carpenter and I am a 16-year-old from Mamaroneck, NY. I organize with Sunrise Westchester and the New York Youth Climate Leaders and am an editor the Globe (mhsglobe.com). I am also a huge podcast listener and an avid violist.

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