Saturday

20th Jan 2018

Focus

Only five countries are helping gay Chechens leave Russia 

  • Russian journalist Elena Kostiuchenko holds up a sign asking for help for Chechen gays, during Warsaw pride earlier this year. (Photo: Marianna Wybieralska/Milosc nie wyklucza)

EU countries roundly condemned a witch hunt against gay people in the Russian republic of Chechnya earlier this year, but only a few governments are willing to help those fleeing persecution.

According to the Russian LGBT Network, an NGO that has been hiding over 60 gay Chechens at secret locations in central Russia, the organisations briefed almost 20 EU countries on the situation in April.

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But France, Germany and Lithuania were the only ones that agreed to work with the network on the relocation of victims of the anti-gay purge. One source close to the Lithuanian government told EUobserver in May that Canada was also working with Lithuania and the Russian LGBT Network on the evacuation.

In recent weeks, one more country, which wants to remain anonymous, has teamed up with the network - a step that has been welcomed by its representative, Tatiana Vinnichenko.

Vinnichenko told EUobserver that her organisation cannot afford to lobby EU embassies for visas. "We are a small organisation with limited resources," she said, adding that governments had the right to refuse help. 

At the same time, the network doesn't have many options for what to do with the Chechens it is hiding.

Less than half of those who applied for help with the organisation have fled abroad. Only a handful did so with the help of EU governments, notably by receiving visas for humanitarian reasons.

Persecution report

In late July, the Russian LGBT Network published a report in cooperation with Elena Milashina and Elena Kostiuchenko, journalists with the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who first wrote about the persecutions.

The report builds on testimonies from 33 people and details the horrors they suffered during the purge of gay men in Chechnya.

It says that, in February, the police and security forces launched a coordinated campaign, rounding up and detaining men whom they accused of being homosexual.

Around a hundred men are said to have been taken away, put into secret prisons and forced under torture to name other homosexuals. This was allegedly a direct order from Chechnya's president, Ramzan Kadyrov, carried out under the supervision of high-level Chechen officials.

A dozen men are said to have died.

"There is solid evidence that three of these people were executed by the Republic's officials or by the relatives of the victim, who were pressured to do so," the report says.

The Russian LGBT Network is also critical of the reaction of Russian federal authorities.

"The Russian Federation doesn't want to initiate a criminal investigation of this crime against humanity. This situation can shift only if the political will of the highest officials changes under effective international pressure," it says in the report.

The authors appeal to foreign governments to offer asylum to the victims of the anti-gay purge and vow to assist those who step forward and seek justice before the European Court of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court.

European condemnation, but little help

Novaya Gazeta's previous reporting, which started with an article published on 1 April, quickly caused a global outcry. 

German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron, in their meetings with Russian president Vladimir Putin, urged him to use his influence to stop the persecution.

The European Parliament passed a resolution in May, in which it called for the end of the purge and for the crimes to be investigated. The parliament also called upon EU countries to offer protection to victims and those at risk of oppression.  

EU foreign ministers also discussed the issue in May, and five - from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK - have additionally written to their Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, to express their concerns and urge an end to the persecution.

Lithuania's foreign minister, Linas Linkevicius, told EUobserver in May that he "believed" more countries would help with visas. "It's not sufficient to make statements,"he said at the time.

Why, then, have so few followed in the steps of France, Germany and Lithuania?

Refugee fatigue seems to be an issue. 

Sweden's minister of justice, Morgan Johansson, told EUobserver in June that his country didn't plan on offering visas to enter Sweden and that his country "cannot help everyone". He recalled that 163,000 sought asylum in Sweden in 2015 and that almost 60,000 people were currently waiting for asylum decisions.

Chechnya - a republic full of human rights abuses

Tanya Lokshina, Russia programme director at Human Rights Watch, told EUobserver that international criticism has nevertheless been important, and bore some fruit.

"We see that Chechnya's authorities have suspended their anti-gay purge. Also, Chechnya is now higher on the international agenda than in a very long time," Lokshina said, highlighting that the unlawful detention facilities were not created for the gay men, but rather have been used for years to hold and torture different Chechen people and to instil fear.

She also said the anti-gay campaign could have been a way to consolidate Ramzan Kadyrov's grip over society.  

"We can't say for certain, but Chechen authorities may have decided to go ahead with this 'purge' so as to consolidate their base of support in the conservative and homophobic Chechen society. They presented it to Chechnya's residents as an effort to protect the honour of the Chechen people and cleanse the republic from what's regarded as a 'stain'," she said.

"Ramzan Kadyrov has been carrying out regular purges against different groups of undesirables before," she added, mentioning campaigns against drug users, fortune tellers, Salafi Muslims, suspected insurgent sympathisers, and local free-thinkers. 

"He has been able to do that with absolute impunity. He couldn't possibly expect to get into trouble, especially as LGBT people are treated as second-class citizens in Russia as a whole," Lokshina said. She argued that despite the respite, gay Chechens are not safe in Russia.

"There is no guarantee that the purge will not resume. And even if no such orders come from high-level Chechen authorities, gay men can still be killed by their families. The threat of honour killings is very real, especially as Chechen officials have been condoning and even encouraging this vile practice."

Lokshina also called on the international community to pay more attention to the situation in Chechnya than it has been doing in recent years.

She said that the purge happened in a "climate of lawlessness and brutal repression", in Chechnya, which she called Kadyrov's "own fiefdom".

She insisted that Russia's international interlocutors should call on the Kremlin to ensure an immediate shutdown of all unofficial detention facilities in Chechnya and to ensure that Chechen authorities comply with Russia's domestic legislation and international human rights obligations. 

Lithuania helps gay Chechens flee Russia

Linas Linkevicius, foreign minister of Lithuania, said his country issued visas to two persecuted Chechens and that an international effort was underway to protect others.

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Anti-gay statements are part of an anti-EU narrative propagated by Poland's ruling Law and Justice party. But only a few politicians from the opposition are willing to challenge the image of Poland as a homophobic country.

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