what’s really happening in chechnya right now?

The LGBTQ community is under attack and urgent action is needed.

by Jake Hall
29 January 2019, 12:54pm

The last few weeks have seen fresh reports detailing the persecution and torture of LGBT people in Chechnya trickle out slowly. On January 14th, the Russian LGBT Network claimed that around 40 people had been detained since December 2018. Two of these victims are thought to have died in police custody as a result of torture. Russian publication Novaya Gazeta -- which broke the news of a similar wave of persecution back in 2017 -- then fact-checked and confirmed these claims, writing that their sources could verify the number of victims detained and killed. Despite this, Chechen authorities have officially denied any wrongdoing on numerous occasions, even going so far as to describe the claims as ‘ a deep fantasy’ -- so what’s really going on?

What we do know is that activists are currently working hard to rescue Chechen victims. One activist -- who wishes to remain anonymous -- taking part in the operation told i-D that they aren’t aware of any new reports of persecution, but claims that “authorities pursue any unwanted people in Chechnya”. Expanding on this chilling statement, they highlight that a combination of fear and media censorship keeps these stories suppressed: “I know some other activists, but talking about them publicly would endanger their lives,” they continued, before praising independent Russian language outlets like Meduza and North Caucasus-based DOSH for reporting on human rights violations.

Vital NGOs are doing their bit to aid these activists. All Out recently launched a fundraiser to help the Russian LGBT Network with its rescue operation, but Senior Campaigns Manager Yuri Guaiana highlights that money alone isn’t enough. He points to a concurrent campaign, explaining: “We’re asking world leaders gathering at the World Economic Forum to publicly condemn these atrocities, and [to] ask Russian authorities to bring those responsible to justice.”

The first ‘gay purge’ reported in 2017 made international headlines. Heartbreaking stories were filled with gruesome quotes from victims, who said they were arrested and rounded up for no good reason; once detained, they were tortured with electric rods and beaten to unconsciousness, or sometimes death. It was claimed that authorities encouraged families to commit ‘honour killings’ -- in other words, to murder any members that ‘bring shame’ on the family in cold blood -- and that officers scoured the phones of victims to source other potential LGBT people to arrest.

Stories were written and campaigns were launched, but the pursuit of justice was largely delayed until victim Maxim Lapunov became the first to speak publicly about his ordeal in October 2017. Visibly shaken, he recounted the violence he had experienced while detained not just to authorities, but later to international media in a high-profile press conference. Despite this, the trial was later tarnished by reports of sabotage: a list of 27 people thought to have been executed in one night was dismissed, and a lengthy statement issued by human rights lawyer Vladimir Smirnov detailed the numerous ways in which the investigation was essentially botched. Twelve months after Lapunov’s first speech, it was reported that no progress had been made.

Security organisation OSCE later highlighted these facts in a comprehensive report, released in December last year. Not only did the report underline the credibility of all the evidence that had been gathered, it also emphasised the lack of interest that had been expressed in actually investigating the claims further. Citing this negligence, the OSCE ordered the formation of a special investigative committee “given the overwhelming evidence that there have been grave violations of the rights of LGBTI persons in the Chechen Republic, and given the fact that the pre-investigations that have been undertaken so far have not been able to reach convincing results”.

Yet this reluctance to officially investigate fell largely under the radar of mainstream media. As the months went by and justice slipped further from reach, it became clear that grisly tales of human rights violations would easily command audiences, but that the long and arduous process required to actually secure prosecution apparently wasn’t so headline-worthy. Interest waned, and fresh atrocities in different countries began to take priority. Slowly but surely, the pressure that had initially been placed on authorities to launch a thorough investigation started to dissipate.

Although authorities officially denied all claims, Chechen Republic leader Ramzan Kadyrov has a well-known history of homophobia. When first probed about the claims, he exclaimed incredulously that LGBT people simply don’t exist in Chechnya. When questioned further, Kadyrov changed step by claiming that any LGBT people in the country should be removed, stating: “Take them far from us so that we don’t have them at home; to purify our blood. If there are any here, take them.” Later in the same interview he referred to queer people as “devils”, and then outlined officially that “their relatives won’t let them be”. He also insinuated that under these circumstances he would turn a blind eye to honour killings: “Even if it’s punishable under the law, we would still condone it.”

Reporting on this kind of discrimination can prove fatal. i-D spoke to numerous activists, all of whom confirmed that censorship in the Russian media is notoriously tight. As for Chechnya? A spokesperson for the Russian LGBT Network stated simply: “As far as we are concerned, there are no LGBT activists in Chechnya -- or at least not as the concept is understood in Russia.”

If international outlets don’t report comprehensively on Chechnya, the job is left to journalists whose investigations could get them killed. Novaya Gazeta has had numerous editors murdered over the last few decades, and Elena Milashina – who broke news of the initial 2017 purge after weeks of meticulous fact-checking – quickly fled the country for fear of repercussion after the news went out. Fellow staffer Ali Feruz, who is openly gay, was arrested under suspicious circumstances just months later and threatened with deportation to Uzbekistan, where same-sex activity is still illegal. After a lengthy campaign headed up by human rights organisation, Feruz escaped persecution and now lives in Germany.

This tangled web of human rights violations makes it difficult to uncover any more facts about the current situation in Chechnya. The numerous organisations we spoke with weren’t able to offer further information, and reports which do make headlines are subjected to rigorous fact-checking which can be delayed by roadblocks laid down by Chechen authorities. (The initial Novaya Gazeta report in 2017 was consistently stalled.)

In these circumstances, social media usually becomes a valuable tool, but in Russia, not even that is safe. Russian authorities have tried -- and, according to reports, failed -- to crackdown on encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, and the most recent wave of persecution supposedly started with a victim found on social networking site VK. Users have since shared posts (which won’t be linked for safety reasons) warning that sketchy new profiles are appearing, prompting fears that homophobes are catfishing to lure new victims.

Note that the presumption of homosexuality is seemingly all it takes to mark a victim. Lapunov confirmed this in court; he described being abducted on the streets of (capital city) Grozny and then thrown into the blood-soaked cellar of a police facility, where he was left for 12 days. He cites his perceived queerness as the reason for his abduction: “Everyone accused me of being gay, and said that people like me should be killed,” he recalled at a press conference. “They put a plastic bag on my head when they took me out of the cell. They wrapped my head with Scotch tape, leaving only a slot to breathe through.” Lapunov then describes being beaten until he could “barely crawl”.

These harrowing reports detail unfathomable human rights violations, so why have authorities been able to avoid conducting a thorough investigation? The media has been slow to ask these questions over the last few years, but activists have continued to do so; in the wake of fresh claims, representatives of Voices4 and RUSA LGBT recently stormed New York’s Russian Consulate to show solidarity and to pressure Trump into releasing a statement.

It’s crucial that these latest reports are taken seriously and pursued properly. In the past, justice has been delayed indefinitely due to a combination of fear, censorship and an international lack of interest. Now these fresh claims have been released, fact-checked and corroborated, it’s time to dig deeper and ensure that Chechnya’s LGBT community is granted both the freedom and the justice it deserves.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Chechnya LGBTQ rights