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HRW issues report on Chechen anti-gay abuses
by Matt Simonette
2017-05-26

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A 42-page report by the international rights-advocacy organization Human Rights Watch ( HRW ), released May 26, details the brutal treatment that gay men in Chechnya were subjected to this past winter and spring.

The report, according to Kyle Knight, a researcher in HRW's LGBT-rights program, provides "the firsthand testimony of what it was like to live through the purge, what it was like to be detained and tortured, but you'll also see what's been like somewhat in the aftermath."

There were two waves in the purge, the first in February, the second in March; news of the episodes first broke in April. Russian authorities promised to investigate the reports, and Chechen authorities pledged to cooperate, even as they denied that gay persons even existed in Chechnya.

On May 24, a bipartisan resolution was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives condemning the violence. It was introduced by U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen ( R-FL ), Eliot L. Engel ( D-NY ), Darrel Issa ( R-CA ), David Cicilline ( D-RI ), Ed Royce ( R-CA ) and Chris Smith ( R-NJ ) and passed unanimously in the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ros-Lehtinen said in a May 23 statement, "This bipartisan resolution sends a clear message to Chechnya and Russia authorities and any oppressor that the U.S. will not stand idly while these human rights atrocities are being committed. The U.S. government needs to continue to speak up to help those who are being indiscriminately targeted, and we must pressure Russia to uphold its international commitment to prevent any further abuses from happening while perpetrators are brought to justice."

Knight told Windy City Times, "We do believe that after a meeting between [Chechen Head of Republic Ramzan] Kadyrov and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in April, it was effectively and actively called off, in the sense that the security forces are no longer going around and rounding up guys, demanding to know their networks, collecting their phones, and that type of stuff."

But the problems for Chechen gay and bisexual men are far from over.

"Not everyone is home yet," Knight added. "There are still people being detained, so I should hesitate to even use the word 'aftermath.'"

Many men who have been released from detention facilities are likewise "remarkably unsafe" as long as they stay in Russia, he added. "The 'Chechen diaspora' is very loyal and very mob-like. These guys know that. Their safe houses are only safe for so long. We know, both from folks doing our interviews at [HRW] but also folks working for human-rights NGO's in Russia, who are trying to help them out, that their mental health is deteriorating rapidly."

HRW estimated that over 100 people were directly affected by the actions. Knight explained, "That means people who were rounded up, detained and/or beaten. The numbers certainly go higher when you're talking about people who have had encounters with authorities, whose doors got knocked on, who got questioned. Those numbers certainly went higher."

Knight further stressed that, "Kadyrov and his forces told families to go off and murder their own gay children. … Even their social safety-nets in their homes have turned against them." Chechen officials have also exacted brutal punishments against family members of persons who report abuses and/or flee, according to HRW.

Some news reports referred to the detention facilities as "gay concentration camps" but Knight said HRW would not label them as such.

"That [label] was absolutely not true," he said. "These were illegal detention facilities that had been operating for the past ten years. They just happened to be filling up with gay people. It was a 'new' minority to target. What we wanted to focus on was—not to downplay the horrors—that the facts of the case were bad enough. We wanted to call it what it was. This was the result of the tacit approval of Putin and the Kremlin for how Kadyrov had run Chechnya—and now gay people were in the crosshairs."

"We have never seen Chechen officials rounding up gay men to be held and tortured [before this]," said Rachel Denber, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at HRW, in a statement. "But local security officials have been using the same violent, unlawful tactics for years with impunity to cleanse Chechnya of so-called 'undesirables'."

HRW hasn't been able to give a definitive explanation for what the initial triggers for the persecution of gay men were, Knight added.

"It's impossible to say for sure, but it's a very 'easy' minority to slur; it's a very conservative and religious society—the membrane between state and religion is very thin," he said. "Kadyrov wants to rally his conservative base and pump up Chechen pride. Because of the last ten years that Kadyrov has spent building this tyrannical system in Chechnya, he was able to act on his decision very decisively and very violently. Whatever is inspiring him to do this, he has the tools at his fingertips and was able to make it happen to a degree that we have not seen anywhere else in modern history."

Persons in the U.S. concerned about the situation need to make their voices heard, according to Knight. "Call your representatives and make them bring it up. We've seen Senator Marco Rubio bringing it in the Senate in a speech, for example. This needs to survive past the media cycle and go beyond the initial 'blip' that it got when it was first reported. Those guys are still not safe until they get out."

Buzzfeed reported that about 40 persons are currently in hiding in various parts of Russia. There is currently little hope that the U.S., which lacks a broad visa category for persons seeking humanitarian relief, will be among the countries admitting them as refugees.

"We have to keep the pressure up on the U.S. government to have a heart in this case and let some of these guys in," Knight said.

The report is available at bit.ly/2rG31eN .


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