In Chechnya, an Unsurprising New Round of Atrocities
By Shira Garbis
Beginning in December of 2018, the Chechen government, under the direction of Governor Ramzan Kadyrov, has illegally arrested, detained, and tortured more than 40 Chechens for allegedly being LGBTQ. According to the latest reports by a Russian LGBTQ network, two people have been tortured to death.
Although certainly horrific, to quote Human Rights Watch’s Associative Director of the Europe and Central Asia division, Tanya Lokshina, this “is not a surprising report of new prosecution.”
Kadyrov’s newest purge is a reiteration of what happened in June of 2017. Two years ago, in what the governor described as an attempt to “cleanse (Chechen) blood,” Kadyrov began rounding up hundreds of men suspected of being gay and illegally detaining them in centre outside of the cities of Grozny and Argun.
At the facilities, both in 2017 and now, victims have been physically and mentally abused. Many have been tortured and forced to implicate other men - regardless of whether or not they were actually gay. Chechen officials used this coercion to continuously persecute LGBTQ victims. According to a former detainee, anonymous for safety reasons, the first night he was held in a facility there were four other men there; days later there were 20. Three people were reported to have died as a result of the 2017 purge and while others were able to return home to their families, that did not necessarily mean they were safe.
Chechnya is known for being a conservative republic where society is characterized by its homophobic views. In her report on the 2017 purge, Lokshina described Chechnya as a place where “homosexuality is generally viewed as a stain upon family honour.” After releasing victims to their families, Chechen officials often continue to shame the families for having an allegedly gay family member, thereby furthering the homophobic climate of Chechnya. Officials have even gone as far as to encourage ‘honour killings’ by family members of victims; related to the 2017 purge, Human Rights Watch was able to confirm four cases in which victims who had been released were forced to flee Chechnya due to their own families’ threats.
Despite blatant persecution by the Chechen government and members of their own families, Russia has done nothing to protect the victims. Moreover, Russia has ratified a number of human rights treaties that legally obligate the country to both protect the victims of Chechen persecution and to open an investigation into the republic’s doings. However, Russia did neither in 2017 and continues to deny the existence of a new purge.
In fact, Russia has its own record of human rights abuses surrounding the LGBTQ community. In a 2014 interview preceding the Sochi olympics, Putin publicly stated that “in Russia, unlike in ⅓ of the world’s countries, being gay is not a crime.” However, his actions imply otherwise; in 2013 Russia passed what is commonly referred to as ‘the anti gay law’ which prohibits the promotion of homosexuality among youth. Furthermore, Russia has continuously cracked down on peaceful LGBTQ rallies in spite of the European Court of Human Rights’ multiple rebukes of the country’s actions.
Following in Russia’s footsteps, the Chechen government stated that “there were no detentions on grounds of sexual orientation...in the Chechen Republic” and even went as far as to declare that gay people “simply do not exist in the Republic.” Furthermore, Russia’s Justice Minister told the UNHRC “the investigations that we carried out...did not confirm evidence of rights’ violations.”
Russia’s denial rests largely on the cyclical, paralyzing nature of victims’ fear. In 2017, after international backlash regarding the purges and the nation’s denial, Russia asked victims to come forward with reports of their experiences. However, as Russia previously failed to offer victims protection from further prosecution by Chechen authorities, few victims were willing to compromise their safety for the nation’s flimsy promises. According to Human Rights Watch, Russia used this lack of testimony as an excuse to “dismiss reports about the anti-gay purges as unsubstantiated.”
In addition to the evaluation of the current and past purges at the international level, the situation in Chechnya requires analysis of the societal level. Lokshina, who worked in Chechnya documenting human rights abuses for 17 years, has a comprehensive understanding of sentiments of the Chechen population. Her interaction with a variety of citizens revealed a level of analysis largely not provided to western news consumers. Specifically, insight into how non-persecuted Chechens are reacting to their government’s actions.
The reality is that many Chechens feel angry; but their anger is dually directed at the Chechen government and the west. As Lokshina stated, Chechen’s relationship with the government is “a very complex question;” citizens feel “stuck and angry” that they have been subject to “illegal detentions, torture, forced disappearances, and even killings” for so many years with no recognition from the international community. To fully understand the situation, one must first have a general understanding of recent Chechen history.
The Governor of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, was- for all intents and purposes- appointed by Putin in 2007. Nonetheless, over the past twelve years, Kadyrov, as Lokshina denotes, “has been running Chechnya...like his own private fiefdom.” He has established total control over all aspects of life in Chechnya and is still striving to “eradicate even the mildest forms of dissent.”
Although the most recent purges have targeted LGBTQ citizens, Kadyrov has used similar illegal detentions, torture, murders, and forced disappearances for a number of marginalized groups in Chechnya. These include Salafi Muslims- a small segment of the majority Sufi nation, drug users, suspected jihadists, and critics of the government. Essentially, anyone who strays from Kadyrov’s homogenous vision of Chechnya and expresses even modest dissent is likely to be persecuted.
This ongoing violation of human rights yet simultaneous lack of acknowledgement by the west is why many Chechens are unhappy; for years they have been living in constant fear under an oppressive government and the west has turned a blind eye. Now, with the beginning of a second LGBTQ purge, the international community steps forward to condemn the government’s actions albeit while offering minimal assistance. But this begs the question - how long will the situation in Chechnya hold the west’s attention? Will they condemn the Russian government, and then promptly move on to pursue their own agenda, allowing Kadyrov to carry on persecuting other segments of his population? The anger many Chechens holds is understandable to in this regard; they are fed up with the west’s undeniable tendency to become involved in extra-territorial affairs solely when it is convenient for them.
The bigger picture is thus more complicated than just the current LGBTQ purges. Yes, we can all agree these purges are a disgusting violation of human rights and that we need to hold Russia accountable for not stopping Kadyrov. But there are, undeniably, broader institutional changes that also need to occur.
For example, as a global community we need to take concrete steps toward creating a universal legal tool that protects the rights of LGBTQ people; we have a UN Declaration on Human Rights, as well as CEDAW - an international recognition of women’s rights, a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but there is no global covenant dedicated solely to the LGBTQ community.
Additionally, the global community needs to be consistent in our attention to human rights violations. As the people of Chechnya have expressed to Lokshina, it is not okay for the global community to ‘step in-’ and I use this term loosely- when one group is persecuted but then turn a blind eye when other groups experience the same violations. That is not to say that intervention is either all or nothing; rather, we need to be conscious of persecutions happening across the globe and agree not to speak up only when we have ulterior motives.
If you are curious about the complex, recent history of Chechnya under Kadyrov, check out Tanya Lokshina’s in depth report regarding the Republic for Human Rights Watch:
Associated Press. “Russia’s ban on LGBTQ rallies violates rights, European court rules” NBC News 27 November 2018.
“Chechnya LGBT: Dozens ‘detained in new gay purge’” BBC News 14 January 2019.
“European Court blasts Russia ‘gay propaganda law’” BBC News 20 June 2017.
Lokshina, Tanya. “They Have Long Arms and They Can Find Me” Human Rights Watch.
Lokshina, Tanya. Personal Interview. 27 February 2019.
Murphy, Jessica. “Canada has quietly granted asylum to LGBT Chechens” BBC News 7 September 2017.
Roth, Andrew. “Chechnya: two dead and dozens held in LGBT purge, say activists” The Guardian 14 January 2019.
“Russia: New Wave of Anti-LGBT Persecution” Human Rights Watch 15 February 2019.
“Vladimir Putin: Anti-gay law ‘does not harm anybody’” BBC News 19 January 2014.