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Canada has quietly brought in 22 people, with more to come, despite risks to Canada-Russia relations, John Ibbitson reports

Hamzat, a man in his mid-twenties, is a recent arrival to Canada. (Hamzat is not his real name. The Globe and Mail is protecting his identity because he fears repercussions for friends and family in Chechnya, and because he is concerned that some Chechen-Canadians might wish him ill.)

For three months, the federal government has been secretly spiriting gay Chechen men from Russia to Canada, under a clandestine program unique in the world.

The evacuations, spearheaded by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, fall outside the conventions of international law and could further impair already tense relations between Russia and Canada. But the Liberal government decided to act regardless.

As of this week, 22 people – about a third of those who were being sheltered in Russian safe houses – are now in Toronto and other Canadian cities. Several others are expected to arrive in the coming days or weeks.

"Canada accepted a large number of people who are in great danger, and that is wonderful," said Tanya Lokshina, Russian program director for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization, in a telephone interview. "The Canadian government deserves much praise for showing such openness and goodwill to provide sanctuary for these people. They did the right thing."

"It’s important that our community, who are concerned about them, know that they’re here, that they’re safe" - Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad

The decision may be seen as controversial. Homosexuals in many parts of the world are harassed, imprisoned, even – as happened recently in Indonesia – publicly flogged.

And the government is struggling to accommodate thousands of mostly Haitian asylum-seekers flooding into Canada from the United States, even as opposition politicians demand that Ottawa find a way to plug the loophole that lets them in.

But the Liberals decided the situation was unique: Chechen security forces were rounding up gay men in a program, placing them in need of immediate rescue.

The program has been a closely held secret within the government for months. Non-governmental organizations that were involved have also kept silent, for fear that any leaks could imperil the people they were trying to help.

However, Kimahli Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian NGO, said the time has come to speak publicly about the Chechen refugees, because those who wanted to come to Canada are now here, and because the new arrivals need help with employment, language training and counselling, which are difficult to provide when their presence is being kept under wraps.

"We needed to be discreet about the program for as long as possible to maintain their safety," said Mr. Powell, whose Toronto-based organization offers support for LGBT people at risk in other countries. "We now have to focus on settlement and integration of these individuals. And it's important that our community, who are concerned about them, know that they're here, that they're safe."

A government official, speaking on background, has said that until now, Ottawa has not been willing to publicly acknowledge the operation.

Kimalhi Powell, executive director of Rainbow Railroad in Toronto on Thursday August 31, 2017.

Background: the purge

Chechnya, a republic (roughly equivalent to a province) within the Russian Federation, is run by a strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been given virtually untrammelled powers by Moscow in exchange for suppressing insurgency in the restive region.

It is a deeply conservative Muslim society in which homosexuality is reviled. Not only do so-called honour killings of homosexuals by family members go unpunished, such killings in recent months have been openly encouraged by the local government. Under Mr. Putin, meanwhile, the rights of LGBT people in Russia have steadily eroded, particularly since 2012, when the government passed a law banning gay "propaganda," a move that recently drew condemnation from the European court of human rights.

Last April, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that Chechen authorities had launched a pogrom against gay men. The reports were independently confirmed by the Russian LGBT Network, an NGO that advocates for sexual minorities in Russia, and by Human Rights Watch.

Based on interviews with detainees and journalists, the NGOs concluded that, in February and March, Chechen authorities had begun rounding up suspected homosexuals, who were taken to detention centres, interrogated and tortured. Their mobile phones were scoured for information and the detainees were ordered to give up the names of other gay men.

The exact number of people who were detained is not known. The Russian LGBT Network reports that 75 people had contacted a hotline the organization set up, including 52 who said they had been detained and tortured.

"People targeted by the anti-gay purge in Chechnya are not safe in Russia" - An excerpt from a Human Rights Watch report

Hamzat, a man in his mid-twenties, is a recent arrival to Canada. (Hamzat is not his real name. The Globe and Mail is protecting his identity because he fears repercussions for friends and family in Chechnya, and because he is concerned that some Chechen-Canadians might wish him ill.) In an interview with The Globe, he was cautious but calm, offering a brief smile from time to time. He described how his ordeals began: One day in March, men wearing green khaki uniforms appeared in his place of work in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. He was handcuffed, placed in the trunk of a car, and taken to a local police headquarters. "I don't know how to express this. I was in shock," he said, speaking through an interpreter.

Hamzat was taken into a room and, still handcuffed, placed on a chair. He was surrounded by men who kicked him with their heavy boots and beat him with the brass nozzles of hoses. In later sessions, he was subjected to electric-shock torture.

The men wanted him to reveal the names of gay men he knew, just as another man under torture had given up his name. "I didn't give them any information," he said. "I lied to them."

Between interrogations, he said, he and other gay men were kept in a cell with drug dealers and users, and confined to a small area because they were considered unclean. The interrogations lasted two or three weeks.

Chechen officials outed the detainees to their families upon release. Most relatives were hostile toward the young men, rather than toward the authorities. Two people have reportedly been killed by their own families and one has died from injuries inflicted on him while he was detained, though these deaths could not be confirmed.

Hamzat feared for his safety unless he left Chechnya. A friend paid the cost of a plane ticket to a city in central Russia, where another friend put him in contact with the Russian LGBT Network, which placed him in a safe house. Homosexuals who lived in other countries in the North Caucasus region also sought shelter, fearing similar purges. In total, about 70 people were sheltered in safe houses, including about half a dozen lesbian women who were also at risk of honour killings.

Human Rights Watch judged that the people living in the safe houses remained in jeopardy. "People targeted by the anti-gay purge in Chechnya are not safe in Russia," a May report from the organization concluded. "They remain at great risk of being hounded by Chechen authorities or their own relatives as long as they remain in Russia."

When news of the detentions and torture became public, a spokesman for the Chechen government insisted there was no pogrom under way because there were no homosexuals in Chechnya, and if there were, "their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning."

The attacks on gays in Chechnya received international condemnation. In meetings with Mr. Putin, both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron urged an end to the violence. By April, word arrived from the region that the purge had been lifted, though Human Rights Watch reported that homosexuals in Chechnya were still being harassed and persecuted, and authorities were pressuring family members to locate and turn over those who had fled.

However, although NGOs pleaded with other governments to take in persecuted gay Chechens, homosexual acts are not illegal in Russia; therefore, refugee claims based on fear of persecution due to sexuality were problematic. As well, under international regulations, refugee claimants must typically leave their home country before they can seek refugee status based on fear of persecution if they return.

The men and women precariously sheltered in Moscow and St. Petersburg appeared to be on their own.

A minister decides to act

In April, Justin Trudeau's Liberal government strongly condemned persecution of homosexuals in Chechnya. But publicly, officials said there was no way to help those at risk, because they were in their home country of Russia.

As well, officials said at the time, Canada had to balance the needs of people from around the world fleeing persecution because of race, religion or sexual orientation. Treating gay Chechens as a separate case could set an unfair precedent.

In fact, efforts to rescue the men were already under way.

"The victims desperately need a safe sanctuary and Canada should set an example for other governments by welcoming them." - Tanya Lokshina, Russian program director, Human Rights Watch

On April 21, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was attending the Sedona Forum, an annual gathering of political and thought leaders hosted by Arizona senator John McCain. She was there to discuss human rights (or the lack of them) in Russia, and Russian actions in Syria and Ukraine. As a journalist in the nineties, Ms. Freeland had lived in and reported on Russia. Her support for sanctions against Russian leaders in retaliation for Moscow's incursions into Ukraine so angered Mr. Putin that she has been banned from entering Russia.

The panel that Ms. Freeland was part of included Ms. Lokshina, of Human Rights Watch, who was in the midst of writing the report on the situation in Chechnya. "I thought: 'This is the worst time for me to travel,'" she recalled. "But then I saw Ms. Freeland's name on the program and immediately realized it was an amazing window of opportunity."

At the panel discussion, Ms. Lokshina addressed Ms. Freeland directly, saying: "The victims desperately need a safe sanctuary and Canada should set an example for other governments by welcoming them." Ms. Freeland, as it turned out, agreed.

With the support of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, Global Affairs began working on a program to rescue as many as possible of the people living in safe houses.

Rainbow Railroad, which had also been pressuring the government to act, agreed to help with the creation of the underground railroad, and to provide support for the refugees after they arrived. In mid-May, Mr. Powell flew to Russia to interview people in safe houses and confer with the Russian LGBT Network.

Running a railroad

In strict secrecy, federal officials worked with the Rainbow Railroad and the Russian LGBT network to identify men who were willing to come to Canada. Ms. Freeland "wanted to be able to save a few individuals," the government source said. "And we also wanted to allow Canada to serve as a demonstration for like-minded countries about what could be done."

It was a difficult choice for men and women who, until the purge began, had given scant thought to leaving Russia. Hamzat knew little of Canada. "Hockey. The maple leaf. Legal marijuana."

But he welcomed the chance to immigrate. "All my life I have pretended to be someone else," he said. "Now I have come to a place where I can be myself."

The government is not willing to discuss how it overcame the issue of countries not accepting refugees who apply from their home country. "A process was undertaken by which an exception could be made to some of those rules," the official said.

After background checks and security screenings, the first of the refugees began arriving in Canada in June. One of them marched anonymously in Toronto's Pride parade.

The individuals involved have been designated government-assisted refugees, which will allow them to obtain permanent-resident status and citizenship. "We will continue our work in terms of screening and trying to bring more over," the official said. But the government believes that, for the moment, all of those who wish to come to Canada and who qualify are now here or will soon arrive.

"If there are any, take them to Canada… Take them far from us so we don’t have them at home. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them" - Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic

Rainbow Railroad believes that the total will reach 30. Most, but not all, are men, and most are from Chechnya, with the rest from other parts of the North Caucasus.

Canada is not the only country to accept gay refugees from Chechnya and other countries in the region. France has accepted at least one person, as has Germany, and two are in Lithuania. An undetermined number of individuals have travelled to European Union countries on tourist visas, and then applied for refugee status.

But Canada is the only country to have adopted an organized, methodical program for taking in as many gay Chechens fleeing persecution as were qualified and willing to come.

The Trudeau government has made LGBT rights a priority, appointing Edmonton MP Randy Boissonnault as special adviser on LGBT issues. The government has already moved to protect transgender rights, and is expected to offer an apology and redress for those in the public service and military who were discriminated against in the past because of their sexuality. Canada is also co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition, a new international organization dedicated to protecting and advancing the rights of sexual minorities.

It isn't known whether or to what extent the Chechen and Russian governments are aware of the underground railroad from Russia to Canada. In a July interview with HBO, Mr. Kadyrov angrily denied the presence of homosexuals in Chechnya, adding "If there are any, take them to Canada… Take them far from us so we don't have them at home. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them."

It's unknown whether Mr. Kadyrov referenced Canada because he was aware of the railroad, or simply because of Canada's reputation for welcoming refugees and protecting the rights of sexual minorities. The government official said that, to the best of the government's knowledge, Russia and Chechnya are unaware of the refugee extraction program.

A new, and unexpected, life

Now that the presence of gay Chechen refugees in Canada is no longer a secret, they will be able to access more easily the support services they need to integrate successfully into Canadian society.

The first priority, says Mr. Powell, is to deal with the trauma these men have experienced over the past six months.

"They are still a little bewildered," he explained. "They're going to need a lot of help. They're still fearful for their lives. They're still getting used to understanding that they're safe, that they can start a new life."

Mr. Powell and others believe that the Chechen pogrom highlights the need for Canada and other governments to act in a co-ordinated fashion to respond to situations similar to the Chechen purge: emergencies around the world in which minorities – racial, religious or sexual – suddenly find themselves at immediate and grave risk.

"These individuals are young and bright and full of potential" - Kimahli Powell

For now, the Canadian government considers the Russian underground railroad a unique program, though one that could be adapted to meet future emergencies. The government official speaking on background stressed that the refugee program is part of a major foreign-policy priority: to protect the rights and safety of sexual minorities around the world.

What matters most to Hamzat and others in his position is that Canada has once again welcomed people fleeing persecution – in this case, people who were at imminent risk of harm.

"I am looking forward to my life here," said Hamzat. "I will likely continue to do professionally what I did back home, but I also want to contribute to bigger causes."

"These individuals are young and bright and full of potential," said Mr. Powell. He is convinced they'll do just fine.