On April 1, a report in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta rocked the global LGBTQ community: At least 100 men who are gay or believed to be gay had been recently rounded up and tortured by authorities in Chechnya, in the Northern Caucuses region of southern Russia. And at least three, according to the report, had been killed.
The catalyst seems to have been an attempt to organize an LGBTQ pride march in the region, prompting a crackdown against local gay and bisexual men. A handful of men have shared their stories of torture and humiliation at the hands of Chechen law enforcement. One man, using the name Adam, told the Guardian newspaper he was apprehended by police, after they reportedly read his text messages and learned he was gay. He said that while he was detained and tortured with electric shocks, “Sometimes they were trying to get information from me; other times they were just amusing themselves.”
Meanwhile, Chechen authorities have denied the existence of gay people there. And a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin told ABC News that the Russian government does “not have any reliable information about any problems in this area.”
While United Nations experts say the violence is at an “unprecedented scale,” the reality is that this wave of violence is not all that new to Chechnya. Last week, former Vice President Joe Biden said Chechnya’s history of “human rights abuses and the culture of impunity that surrounds them means that these hate crimes are unlikely to ever be properly investigated or that the perpetrators will see justice.”
Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division, explains how the violence is not an isolated moment but a surge of ongoing hostility under Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do we know about any violence against gay men in Chechnya, and when did it start?
What’s happening in Chechnya right now is that law enforcement are rounding up men who are either gay or believed to be gay and holding them in informal detention centers, and beating them, torturing them, in order to get them to cough up their contacts and friends who also might be gay. In some cases, they then return [the men] after a couple of days, or sometimes after a couple of weeks, to their families.
In some cases, the authorities humiliate them by saying, “This is your husband,” or “This is your son. He’s gay, do what you have to do with him.” The implication is that in a highly traditional Chechen society, being gay is a stain on your family’s honor. It stains the clan, so this [can provide the rationale for] an honor killing.
The local Chechen authorities are denying what’s going on. They say there are no gay people in Chechnya, and even if there were, basically, their families would kill them.
Putin’s press spokesperson is saying if anyone’s the target of a kidnapping, they can file a complaint and the guilty party would be brought to court. But that’s just not how it works in Chechnya, because people are so worried to step forward. They have absolutely no protection.
There have been several waves of these roundups recently. There was a wave in early March, and then there was another wave in the beginning of April.
But I think it’s really important to emphasize that this practice of hounding, persecuting, subjecting to humiliation, beating gay men, especially in Chechnya, is not new. It’s been going on for years. What we’re seeing now is a spike in that trend.
You mentioned Putin spokesperson’s response to all this. Could you expand a little more on what his reaction means?
Filing a complaint against local officials in Chechnya is extremely dangerous. It’s basically run like a tyranny. You have no protection whatsoever, and you are extremely vulnerable to retaliation by local authorities.
Not just on this issue, but just about any issue where you try to report abuse. Chechnya is run by Ramzan Kadyrov. He runs it like his own personal fiefdom — even though it’s part of the Russian Federation.
How did Chechnya get to this point?
Kadyrov was basically appointed by Putin. He owes his job to Putin, and he has pledged his loyalty to Putin.
Kadyrov was entrusted by Putin to stop the Islamist insurgency in Chechnya. In previous years, it’s fought two wars of independence from Russia, the first in ’94 to ’96 and then second one from ’99 to about 2001 or 2002. The second one was not really a war about independence, but it was really about Russia trying to crack down on Islamic militants who had basically taken over Chechnya.
So there’s this insurgency all over the North Caucasus part of Russia, and Putin entrusted Kadyrov to deal with Islamist militants, to get rid of insurgents, which Kadyrov has done thorough a variety of methods, like forcibly disappearing people, and torturing people who are suspected of being insurgent. If they suspect someone is an insurgent, they basically punish the whole family. We documented one pattern over the years where if someone was suspected of being an insurgent, and the family wouldn’t give themselves up, their house would be burned down.
It’s a very, very tough place. It’s a brutal place to live for human rights activists, journalists, especially, recently because Kadyrov has one-man rule. He tolerates no dissent. Human rights activists, journalists, have been attacked, threatened, and in several cases, have been killed.
Kadyrov tolerates no dissent from the public, either. Even people who try to communicate through closed groups, or on WhatsApp, or on what are supposed to be secure mobile apps — you can’t communicate on Facebook or the Russian versions of social media apps because they have become penetrated by Russian security services.
One part of it that we documented was how, even people who [communicated with others privately] found themselves detained, humiliated, were forced to make public confessions. In some cases they just disappeared and then [were] found dead. It’s an absolutely brutal place.
So it’s in that context that we have to see the anti-gay campaign. Kadyrov depends on Putin for his political survival. He tries to cultivate an image for himself in Chechnya as the undisputed leader of the people. One of the ways he does that is by channeling Chechen traditions. Chechens are also largely Muslim, it’s a very conservative society, and so Kadyrov draws on that and takes it to some extremes.
For example, nowhere [in other parts of Russia] are women forced to wear headscarves. But in Chechnya, women must wear headscarves in public places. It’s the law.
And there was a time in Chechnya where there was a campaign back in, like, 2012, where women who refused to wear headscarves in public places would be the targets of this campaign where they’d face humiliation and paintball attacks.
So, you know, [Kadyrov] likes to wrap himself in the legitimacy of Chechen traditions and his vision of Islam. He really pushes homophobia and discrimination. He says it’s antithetical of our society, and his spokespeople say that if we were to allow homosexuality, our society would collapse. It’s very, very openly anti-gay and homophobic.
A few years ago, Russia’s anti-LGBTQ propaganda law became international news, especially during the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Three years later, how has this law affected people there, as well as areas like Chechnya?
The anti-gay propaganda law, I think, has had a very devastating impact. The Russian government claims the law doesn’t discriminate, and that it’s just protecting children, because the law forbids spreading propaganda about same-sex relationships or nontraditional relationships to children.
But it’s pretty transparent that the overwhelming message is there’s a reason why it’s not okay to talk about this stuff to children, and that’s because it’s not okay to be gay.
So as the law was being debated, before it was adopted, and in the aftermath of its adoption, there was a very clear uptick of homophobic violence all over Russia.
But the impact of that law in the North Caucasus — Kadyrov was so forgone anyway, in terms of homophobia and that kind of discrimination, that it’s hard to know whether the law had any real impact there.
What kind of efforts have other countries made to potentially thwart this abuse?
I think what countries need to do is they need to be the ones telling Putin to make it clear to Kadyrov that this needs to stop. Also, they need to do whatever they can to lead gay people who are in imminent danger in Chechnya and help them find refuge elsewhere.
I think another aspect has been about the Russian journalists who have been writing about this. Novaya Gazeta broke story back on April 1. There have been very nasty threats against the journalist Elena Milashina. She’s pretty intrepid and has been writing about Chechnya for years and years, and has faced many threats. So they can also be focused on the safety of the journalists and of Elena Milashina.