Russian campaigners have told The Daily Beast that Chechen authorities have ordered people to kill LGBT members of their own families, and have demanded ransoms for the release of detained LGBT relatives.
According to reports, at least 40 people have been arrested in the last two to three weeks, many of them tortured, in a new crackdown against LGBT people in Chechnya. Two gay men have reportedly died following torture.
“Chechen authorities demanded that relatives punish their gay family members by executing them,” one of the St. Petersburg volunteers for the Russian LGBT Network, who did not wish to be named, told The Daily Beast. “Several people who managed to escape have been raped with police clubs and tortured with electricity.”
The detentions were reportedly carried out by law enforcement officers in the southern city of Argun.
Alvi Karimov, spokesman for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, told reporters Monday the reports are “complete lies and don’t have an ounce of truth in them.”
Svetlana Gannushkina, a prominent human rights defender, told The Daily Beast that on a recent afternoon she had received phone calls from a Chechen family, asking her to help an arrested male relative.
Gannushkina is a former member of the presidential Council of Civil Society and Human Rights in Moscow. “People in Chechnya believe that I can make a few phone calls and save their loved ones. This family asked me to help after police had arrested their relative and demanded one million rubles ($15,090) from them, otherwise the entire republic would know that they had a gay family member; and they said they would kill their boy. So there were two threats.”
Gannushkina put the family in touch with an attorney. On Jan. 10 she heard the man was free. “The police most probably took their money,” Gannushkina, now the head of Civil Assistance Committee, an NGO, told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “This situation sounded like one more awful atrocity in Kadyrov's Chechnya.”
A human rights campaigner in Chechnya, who declined to be named, told The Daily Beast that the recently detained gay men and women were threatened with prosecution under article #221 of the country’s criminal code, possession of drugs.
By Tuesday night, according to the human rights defender, police had released the detained gay men and women, who signed away their right to leave the republic. According to the source, officials retained the passports of the released LGBT people.
Since 2017, Russian and international LGBT networks have managed to help 150 Chechen victims of violence escape to Western countries. To evacuate one gay person from Chechnya abroad, volunteers have to raise up to 4,000 euros ($4,544).
CNN reported that the latest detentions started in December 2018, following the arrest of an administrator of a North Caucasus gay men’s group on the Russian social network VKontakte.
According to victims, a violent circle of top government officials and police commanders are driving the campaign to eject gay people from the republic.
“Since the beginning of the purge in 2017, we have heard dozens of stories from Chechens who we helped about local government officials ordering relatives to execute their family members,” one of the Russian LGBT Network’s campaigners told The Daily Beast. “These so-called ‘murders of dignity’ are popular in Chechnya.”
Dzhambulat Umarov, the Chechen Minister of National Policy, referred to the present detention, torture, and death allegations as “fantasy” and “nonsense.” Umarov added: “Considering the fact that they (gay people) have sick imagination to start from, I am not surprised that they can write nonsense like that.”
The Daily Beast interviewed Russian LGBT activists in Moscow and St. Petersburg, who organize the evacuations of LGBT victims of persecution from the republic.
Zoya Metisova, a 42-year-old psychologist and volunteer with the Russian LGBT Network, said that since mid-December the organization had received multiple pleas for help from LGBT Chechens.
“Chechens are too scared to speak with us on the phone, so we use an email for emergency calls,” Metisova told The Daily Beast. “So far no state agency has approached us with help or aid, we have to collect money and organize the evacuation. It is very concerning that now they grab and torture not only gay men but also gay women in Chechnya,” she added.
In 2017 more than 100 gay men were arrested and subjected to torture in the predominantly Muslim region. When journalists asked Kadyrov about arrests, he said: “Take them far away from us, so we don’t have them at home. To cleanse our blood, if there are any here.”
President Vladimir Putin has granted Kadyrov unlimited power. There is almost nobody in the republic, which has a population of 1.3 million, who is willing to give shelter to LGBT Chechens. Local human rights defenders face arrest, arson and murder.
Dmitry Gudkov, an ex-KGB officer and an opposition leader, told The Daily Beast that the reaction of Chechen authorities was “shameful,” and that the unlawful purge of Chechen LGBT people was making many senior law enforcement officers angry.
“Kadyrov has gone wild and it seems Putin cannot control him at all,” Gudkov told The Daily Beast. “Russia is not a sharia country but a democracy, where Chechen nationals have the same constitutional rights as everybody else. It is Putin who should protect their rights.”
The torture and murders of gay men and women have not stopped in the two years following the first crackdown.
Arsen, a Chechen gay man, was 24 years old in February 2017, when several uniformed men kidnapped him on Putin Prospect, the main thoroughfare in Grozny, and locked him up with a dozen other gay men in a private apartment.
“Kadyrov’s police demanded we give the names of other gay men to be threatened and beaten,” he told The Daily Beast in a phone interview on Tuesday.
After he spent 11 days in a police jail in Grozny, Arsen’s family did not want to have anything to do with him. “I saw awful things, violent beatings; I was happy not to see any women in that jail. They would not have survived a day.
“Kadyrov's government consider gay people perverts who have no right to live; my family renounced me, I had to escape from the republic to survive.”
The situation facing LGBT Chechens is getting worse. “This time we hear more about torture of women, and police raping both gay men and women with police clubs,” Metisova said.
Sergey Markov, a member of Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, called on the Russian government to help the Chechen LGBT community.
“I have been saying for a long time, that there should be a safe state channel for them,” Markov said, meaning that LGBT victims of violence should know who to call in the government in case of emergency.
However, said Markov, “Russian officials do not like the topic, in general. They see foreign special services behind these allegations.”
“It is remarkable that this new wave of arrests began shortly after OSCE (Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe) published its report in December, confirming serious human rights violations in Chechnya, as if Chechen authorities launched a revenge,” Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, told The Daily Beast.
During the earlier anti-LGBT purge, Russian state law enforcement agencies claimed that all the allegations by LGBT activists about detentions, torture and deaths were false, since authorities had never received any concrete complaints from individuals.
Tatyana Moskalkova, High Commissioner for Human Rights of the Russian Federation, encouraged Chechen victims “not to be afraid to contact law enforcement agencies.”
But survivors of torture and persecutions say they are terrified of Chechen officials, who are a part of the Russian Federation law enforcement system.
Arsen, who has successfully claimed asylum in Canada, told The Daily Beast, “I can become a witness for a court hearing if Russia begins a serious investigation of crimes against LGBT people.”