Monday

25th Mar 2019

Opinion

The Chechnya LGBT crisis – one year on

  • Many of those victims have since disappeared and lost all contact with the NGOs trying to help them (Photo: Marianna Wybieralska/Milosc nie wyklucza)

It was a spring weekend almost twelve months ago when the LGBTI movement was rocked by news from the Chechen republic in Russia that (perceived) gay and bisexual men were being abducted, imprisoned and tortured for contact details of other (perceived) LGBT people.

One year on, our knowledge about the details of the human rights crisis is more extensive and disturbing.

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There are numerous testimonies from surviving victims, evidence of multiple deaths as a result of the torture endured in detention, and subsequent violence at the hands of family members - so-called 'honour killings'.

Despite a strong international response initially, including from the EU, Council of Europe and UN, an official investigation into the situation has not been conducted (despite an investigative committee being formed last spring). Those responsible have not been brought to justice, and victims continue to flee the republic.

The number of those still detained is unknown, and calls for help continue to flood the phone lines of local NGOs at the forefront of the response. As such, pressure from governments and international agencies on Russian counterparts must continue.

The story began for us on 1st April 2017, when the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that a number of men aged between 16 and 50 had disappeared from the streets of Chechen towns and cities.

According to Novaya Gazeta, the men "were detained in connection with their non-traditional sexual orientation or suspicion of such".

Facts were scant, and the increasingly dangerous situation meant that verifying the stories we heard was extremely challenging.

ILGA-Europe, which has more than 500 member organisations across Europe and Central Asia, immediately began liaising with activists and human rights defenders on the ground, to establish what was happening.

Further reports suggested that more than 100 men had been detained, some abducted from the roadside and others entrapped through smartphone dating apps or, later, through contact details or social media accounts obtained from other detainees.

News quickly emerged of men fleeing the region.

It is important to note that the purge didn't stop with (perceived) gay and bisexual men, either.

One year on, we know of at least 12 women, two of them trans women, who were also detained.

Furthermore, LBT women face daily challenges in this male-dominated, strongly-traditional society in which a woman's reputation is considered a lynchpin of family honour.

As such, the situation is hard for LBT women on a daily basis, even if they were not the specific targets of this persecution.

Many have sought refuge beyond the borders of Chechnya, and Russia, as a result of these purges.

Activists and allies across Europe quickly arranged vigils and demonstrations outside Russian embassies.

Chechnya hit the headlines globally as the media realised the magnitude of the crisis, and senior politicians – including chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, Coucil of Europe commissioner for human rights Nils Muiznieks, European Parliament president Antonio Tajani – demanded that Russian president Vladimir Putin take action.

'They don't exist'

The Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, denied any such abductions were taking place and, echoing his leader's comments from a year before, a Kadyrov spokesperson said that the allegations must be false because "you cannot arrest or repress people who just don't exist".

A year on, we know that the situation is just as grave as it was when the story broke.

We now know, from the numerous testimonies of survivors, including those publicly announced by one brave witness who spoke to the media late last year, that torture and inhumane treatment have been commonplace. We have heard terrible second-hand accounts of other killings.

Even victims who have fled abroad have not in all cases found safety.

Numerous victims who fled Chechnya were found by authorities, family members or vigilantes and brought back to Chechnya, raising the issue of (hideously named) 'honour killings'.

Many of those victims have since disappeared and lost all contact with the NGOs trying to help them. In fact, many suspect that Zelimkhan Bakav, a Chechen singer, who disappeared last summer has been killed, and a recent statement from Kadyrov is appearing to lay the blame at his family's door.

According to our colleagues at the Russian LGBT Network, who have been at the front line of helping people flee from Chechnya, more than 300 people have been affected to date.

Dozens of people – including family members of victims – have been relocated. The €30,000 raised by ILGA-Europe in our Chechnya crisis appeal has gone directly to help resettle refugees in their new homes, adding to the funds raised by the Network directly. But many remain in Chechnya, or other regions of Russia, still seeking safety.

One year on, we have been encouraged by the international institutions' ongoing interest in the situation. The Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) visited Chechnya to investigate the reports in December.

Right now, PACE general rapporteur on the rights of LGBTI people Piet de Bruyn is putting together a comprehensive report on the situation.

Grindr helped out

We were also encouraged when the dating app Grindr changed its settings to increase user anonymity in some of the places where LGBTI people are at risk.

Through their 'Grindr for Equality' programme, the app also encouraged users in Western Europe and North America to give to our Chechnya fund, and many generously donated.

But, one year on, we also need fresh momentum.

A year after the news broke, the situation remains unsolved.

Kremlin authorities have not investigated the allegations despite a victim coming forth publicly to share his experience, the CPT report will likely never become public as Russian authorities would need to give their permission to publish it.

As such, the perpetrators are allowed to carry on with impunity, while victims continue to have to flee.

As we approach the first anniversary of the news of the Chechnya crisis breaking, we need to strengthen our resolve to not only investigate these dreadful abuses of human rights, but to bring those responsible to justice, to achieve effective remedy for victims, raise more funds to resettle more refugees in places of safety, and to increase pressure on international agencies to force Russia to take this issue seriously and stop capitulating to the Chechen leader's lies and misinformation.

Until this happens, LGBTI people will continue to be tortured, abused and worse, right on Europe's doorstep.

Bjorn van Roozendaal is programmes director at ILGA-Europe

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