The treatment of the gay community in Chechnya

It has recently been widely reported that Chechen police and security forces have engaged in a targeted campaign against the gay community in Chechnya. Dozens of presumed gay and bisexual men have been rounded up by security forces and held in unofficial detention facilities. This recent escalation builds on a pattern of historical abuses of the gay community in Chechnya.

Recent gay rights history in Chechnya

Homosexuality was legalised in Russia in 1993, but in Chechnya - which enjoyed greater autonomy until it returned to direct Russian rule in 2000 - restrictive laws have remained on homosexuality. In 1996, the then President Aslan Maskhadov adopted strict sharia law which made acts of sodomy and consensual anal intercourse between two men illegal with punishments of caning on the first two offences and execution on the third.

Since returning to Russian direct rule, conditions have not greatly improved for gay men in Chechnya. Chechnya remains a highly traditional Muslim society and for many Chechens homosexuality is unacceptable. In fact, this position is shared across Russia. A poll from the Pew Research Centre found that 74% of people in Russia did not believe homosexuality should be accepted in society.

The current situation

Even in the context of this historical background, the situation for LGBT people has worsened in recent months. Several sources have reported attacks and detention of gay men in the region. Human Rights Watch report that over the last few months there have been abduction-style detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and deaths against gay men in Chechnya with many returning to their families badly beaten. Human Rights First said “gay men are being treated like animals. They’re rounded up, they’re detained, they’re tortured and a few have been murdered.”

There is increasing evidence that entrapment is being used to capture gay men with security agents posing as gay men looking for dates and then persuading those already captured to lure in acquaintances. One victim told the New York Times that after engaging in a chatroom conversation with a gay friend and arranging a meeting, he was greeted by agents rather than his friend at the agreed meetingplace. It is alleged that agents strapped him to a chair, attached electrical wires to his hands with alligator clips, and began an interrogation placing pressure on him to reveal other gay men he may know.

Once captured, many men are taken to unofficial detention camps. Detainees can be held for as little as a day or as long as three weeks. Human rights campaigners have described these as ‘gay concentration camps’: men are taken outside and beaten several times a day, having their hands electrocuted and being forced to sit on bottles. A personal account from a detainee recalled how “they started beating me with their fists and feet and then they tied wires to my hands and put metal clippers on my ears to electrocute me. They've got special equipment, which is very powerful. When they shock you, you jump high above the ground.

Pressure has also been placed on families to comply with security forces. Chechens have been urged by officials to engage in ‘honour killings’ against gay relatives and are told that a failure to do so will bring ‘shame’ and ‘disgrace’ on their families. It has been reported by Radio Svoboda - a radio service funded by the United States Congress to report news and information across Eastern Europe - that guards in the unofficial detention facilities will only release relatives to people if the family promises to kill them. Police have also engaged in ‘outing’ gay men to their families, adding on the pressure to families to act.

Responses

Chechnya and Russia

The Chechen government has dismissed these reports. A spokesman for Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has described the accounts as “absolute lies and disinformation”, even denying that gay men even exist in Chechnya. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry described the reports as an ‘April Fool’s joke’. This reaction has been endorsed by President Putin whose spokesman said there was no reason to doubt Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s claims.

Human Rights Watch has reported that threats have been made to newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a local newspaper in Russia, which exposed the cruel and degrading treatment of gay men in Chechnya . In a letter to the paper’s editor which was subsequently posted to his Instagram account, Chechnya's press and information minister demanded the newspaper “apologise to the Chechen people” for suggesting that gay men exist among Chechens, calling it a “filthy provocation.” Novaya Gazeta has also claimed that an adviser to Kadyrov accused its staff of libel at the meeting and described them as “enemies of our faith and our homeland”.

The rest of the world

These responses have failed to satisfy the international community with many countries and human rights organisations calling for further investigation into these abuses. The United States’ ambassador to the United Nations has called for Chechen authorities to immediately investigate these accusations and hold anyone found guilty accountable. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that it is crucial that reports of abductions, unlawful detentions, torture, beatings and killings of men perceived to be gay or bisexual are investigated thoroughly, while Amnesty International also called for a prompt investigation and intervention.

The UK Government has also taken a very critical line and has attacked the Chechen government for their response. Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay said that they were continuing to raise serious concerns with Russian authorities at all levels about the treatment of LGBT people. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has reiterated this, commenting that it was outrageous that the Chechen government supported, rather than stopped, the ill-treatment of LGBT people with Sir Alan Duncan, a Foreign Office Minister calling the actions and reports “utterly barbaric” and “despicable”.

Conclusion

The escalation of persecution of gay men in Chechnya has recently caused deep concern across the world. The reaction of the Chechen and Russian governments to date has been dismissive. International condemnations are thus likely to increase. However, at present, there seems no real mechanism through which Western leaders can force Chechen police and security officials to respect human rights.

Michael Hough is a research assistant at Bright Blue