April 17, 2017 – A brutal campaign against gay men is sweeping Chechnya, with reports of abduction-style detention, enforced disappearances, torture and deaths. Chechnya is an administrative unit of the Russian federation, and Russia’s authorities are duty bound to uphold the rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in its domestic legislation and international human rights obligations. The obligations it owes to residents and victims in Chechnya, and its failure to meet them, are evident to all in the region.
Minorities and government critics in the Chechen republic face a ruthless state security apparatus and scant avenues for recourse. LGBT people are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Anti-gay social attitudes are widespread in Chechnya; homophobia is intense and rampant – and fueled by local leadership. LGBT people are in danger of being both attacked by the authorities and victims of “honour killings” by their own relatives – a vile, lawless practice against those who supposedly tarnish family honour.
Local officials openly approve of these killings, while Moscow turns a blind eye. Given the societal and authoritarian pressures, gay Chechens released to their families after days of torture and confinement in horrific conditions sadly risk more persecution and abuse instead of sanctuary.
The presidential spokesman’s blithe recommendation was that those who, “in their opinion” suffered abuse by law enforcement officials should report the cases to authorities. This advice is not only tone deaf and cynical, but reveals the lack of recourse available to victims in Chechnya. Without concrete, effective security guarantees, victims and witnesses cannot come forward, and there is no chance that any worthwhile investigation would take place. It should be a call to action for the international community.
As with past attacks on Chechen dissidents, activists and minorities, Russia’s leadership can have no doubt of the extent to which Chechen authorities have violated human rights. Over the past decade, Ramzan Kadyrov, the local strongman, has installed tyranny in Chechnya with the blessing of the Kremlin. Kadyrov’s control touches virtually all aspects of social life, including politics, religion, academic discourse and family matters.
If the Kremlin’s dismissive response indicates that Russia will not offer any meaningful security guarantees to the victims of this current horrific campaign, the international community needs to fill that gap.
The actions in Chechnya fit into a disturbing global pattern of governments explicitly driving anti-gay violence, or tacitly allowing vigilantes to attack LGBT people with impunity. Throughout 2016, officials and politicians in Indonesia stoked anti-LGBT sentiment that boiled over into police violence against peaceful demonstrations and raids on suspected gay gatherings, and vigilante attacks on activists. After the brutal machete slaughter of two gay activists in Bangladesh in April last year, a top government official publicly stated that the deceased had been working to promote values “that do not fit in our society.” The Gambian government’s targeting of journalists, human rights defenders, student leaders, religious leaders and political opposition member extended to the LGBT community as well, driven by the former president’s charge that “homosexuality is anti-God, anti-human, and anti-civilisation”.
Western governments should press Russian authorities at the highest level to resolutely condemn what effectively stands for a mop-up operation against gay men in Chechnya. Given the seriousness of the situation and the level of the threat, governments should also do whatever they can to assist LGBT people in imminent danger to leave Chechnya and find safe sanctuary outside Russia. This includes providing and expediting humanitarian visas, refugee resettlement, or any other permission for entry.
Russia’s record of failure to investigate and prosecute anti-LGBT violence elsewhere in the country is coupled with the stark lack of accountability for torture, enforced disappearances, and extra-judicial killings in Chechnya by security officials under Kadyrov’s control. That sends an urgent signal to key international actors to step in to save the lives and dignity of people before it leads to yet more blood and suffering.
Kyle Knight is Researcher, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program