LGBT Chechens Jolted By Suspected Anti-Gay Campaign

Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov has denied the existence of gay people in the region as proof for why the allegations of anti-gay persecution are false

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov — REUTERS
Apr 04, 2017 at 11:17 AM ET

After reports that gay men were being kidnapped and murdered in Chechnya, members of the LGBT community there are fearing for their lives, say human rights organizations on the ground.

“They call us and say they’re scared, or their friends are missing, or they’ve managed to escape and they need help,” said Svetlana Zaharava, the communications manager at the Russian LGBT Network, an advocacy non-profit that last week opened a hotline to help Chechen gay people confront what many fear is an uptick in anti-gay persecution.  Zaharava was unable to divulge any details related to the victims of the alleged sweep, but said that it fit a pattern of intolerance and persecution in Chechnya, a Muslim-majority Northern Caucasus region on the border with Georgia. She said that her organization has helped a number of Chechens to relocate outside of their region, and has offered psychological consultation by telephone and email to those unable to leave.

“Chechnya is a specific region and human rights don’t exist there,” said Zaharava. “It’s almost impossible to be an open LGBT person in Chechnya, that is why people are so stigmatized, and why the gay victims’ parents wouldn’t cooperate with law enforcement [in investigating the disappearances]. It’s because they’re ashamed.”

The rumor that more than 100 Chechen gay men have been detained, and three gay men killed “in connection with their non-traditional sexual orientation, or suspicion of such” was confirmed by a liberal-leaning Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta on Saturday. The victims reportedly included religious leaders, TV personalities, and others who were baited through social media to expose themselves as gay.

Novaya Gazeta’s findings could not be verified, though the story has been picked up by numerous international media sites.

It said that the anti-gay sweep occurred in response to a gay rights group having requested a permit to hold a gay and transgender parade in four cities in Russia’s Northern Caucasus region, of which Chechnya is a part. The group did not apply for a permit in Chechnya but it did in another southern Muslim-majority region.

The Moscow-based Kavkazsky Uzel website reported that the requests were denied, and were followed by anti-gay demonstrations as well as threatening messages sent to event organizers.

“I am confident that if any of them again try to stage a similar rally or a gay parade in Dagestan [in the North Caucasus region] or Chechnya, they will face a tough response. I fear that it can even end in bloodshed,” Dagestani blogger Umar Butayev told the On Kavkaz website.

Russia decriminalized homosexuality in the 1990s, though same-sex couples are subject to discrimination and persecution. In 2013, Russia enacted the “gay propaganda law” forbidding LGBT people from “promoting” homosexuality with children. That was interpreted by Russian lawmakers to mean anything from hoisting signs reading “Gay is OK” to photos featuring a goat and a tiger to those who report on gay rights.

But Russia’s intolerance looks progressive when compared to Chechnya, its semi-autonomous republic.

Advocacy groups like Russian LGBT Network are barred from operating in Chechnya. Persecution and denial of “unconventional sexual orientation” are rampant among the highest ranking officials.

“You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” a spokesman for Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov told the Russian news agency Interfax in response to the weekend report.

Heda Saratova, head of the Human Rights Council in Chechnya, dismissed the report, saying she hadn’t received “a single request on this issue, but if I did, I wouldn’t even consider it.”

“In our Chechen society, any person who respects our traditions and culture will hunt down this kind of person without any help from authorities. They will do everything to make sure that this kind of person does not exist in our society,” she said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov added no support for the LGBT community, saying only that he is “not a big specialist in the field of untraditional orientation.” Peskov said the Kremlin did not know how much the report “corresponds to reality … but, of course, we will check.”

Such statements only add to the fear held by members of the LGBT Chechen community.

“I just do not want to be killed by someone and for the killer to get away with it because the authorities believe that this is the norm,” said Magomed, who identified himself as one of the only openly gay Chechens he knows, writing in a private gay support group on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook. In a Chechen LGBT group on Vktontakte at least one advertisement for a missing gay man drew criticism from other users, who called it “stupid and dangerous.”

Zaharava, from the Russian LGBT Network, said her organization had little access to Chechnya, and that even human rights workers could not work for prolonged periods in the region because of the severe and violent reactions to homophobia.

Eliza, a member of a closed Vkontakte group, said that without government protection, gay Chechens need to take their lives into their own hands.

“The report may be true or it may be false, but I would suggest that LGBT people in Chechnya should take up arms, carry weapons, and not walk alone,” she said.