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The international community must respond to attacks on gay men in Chechnya

For the first time since Germany in the 1930s, homosexuals in a European country are being systematically rounded up, tortured and killed, according to Russian journalists and human-rights organizations.

Now Canada and other nations are demanding that Russian President Vladimir Putin investigate and end this purge in Chechnya, an autonomous republic within the Russian federation.

Moscow, however, seems indifferent, even as religious leaders in Chechnya declare a jihad against the journalists who broke the story, forcing at least one of them to flee the country.

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Read more: Chechnya police arrest 100 suspected gay men, three killed: report

The question is whether the Trudeau government will offer protection to persecuted sexual minorities fleeing the republic.

"These guys need to get out," said Kyle Knight, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, in an interview Sunday. "When governments see asylum cases from Chechen gay men, they need to consider them very, very seriously."

Novaya Gazeta, one of the few independent newspapers still operating in Russia, first reported in early April that Chechen authorities were targeting homosexuals.

In recent weeks, the newspaper reported, at least a hundred men had been seized and taken to detention centres, where they were beaten and verbally abused. At least three have reportedly been killed.

This is thought to be the first time a European government has arrested, tortured and killed homosexuals since the days of Nazi Germany.

Two men who were detained, but eventually released and left Chechnya, told Britain's Guardian newspaper that men, some of them wearing uniforms, had seized them and taken them to a detention centre where they were beaten daily and subjected to electric shocks. Their captors demanded that they out other homosexuals, and used the contact lists on their mobile phones to track others down.

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After about two weeks, the men were handed over to their families. "They said: 'Your son is a faggot. Do what you need to with him,'" one man recounted. Officials at Human Rights Watch have interviewed several people who were detained and abused, and corroborate the Novaya Gazeta reports. They believe at least 200 people have now been rounded up. One of the three dead was apparently killed by his own family.

Chechnya is a deeply conservative and homophobic society. With the tacit approval of Mr. Putin, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has brought a measure of peace to the rebellious republic, employing draconian means that include promoting fundamentalist Muslim values.

Moscow has shrugged off the reports, saying it has received no reliable information about any persecutions. And Mr. Kadyrov on Sunday called the allegations a "massive information attack … using the most unworthy methods.

"Attempts are being made to blacken our society, lifestyle, traditions and customs," he said via social media.

The international community has little doubt that a purge of homosexuals in Chechnya is under way. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland called the persecutions "reprehensible" in a statement released on the weekend. "We call on the Russian authorities to thoroughly investigate these reports and to immediately ensure the safety of all persons in Chechnya who may be at risk due to their sexual orientation."

Alex Lawrence, a spokesperson for Ms. Freeland, said Sunday, "Our government is committed to working with civil-society organizations and LGBTQ2 community groups both at home and around the world to combat discrimination, violence and unjust laws." But he declined to comment on whether Canada would offer refuge for gays fleeing the republic.

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Amnesty International Russia on Friday confirmed earlier reports that a gathering of religious leaders at the central mosque in Grozny had passed a resolution vowing "retribution" for the articles, which the clerics and elders said attacked the "centuries-old foundations of Chechen society and the dignity of Chechen men."

Amnesty International said it "considers this resolution to be a threat of violence against journalists."

Elena Milashina, one of the journalists who broke the story, agrees, and has temporarily left Russia. "Not just me, but all the people working at the newspaper are now in danger, because this was a clear jihad message," she told the Washington Post.

The situation has become so grave that the U.S. State Department and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have urged the Russian government to intervene.

But if a systemic, violent, sometimes lethal attack on homosexuals is under way in Chechnya, then the international community will have to do more than protest.

Justin Trudeau has championed the rights of sexual minorities at home and abroad. If he were to commit Canada to offering refuge to Chechens whose lives are at risk because of their sexuality, "that signals to other countries around the world that this is a real emergency," said Mr. Knight.

Stephen Harper's Conservative government quietly aided homosexuals escaping from Iran through an informal underground railroad that brought them to Canada. Now it's Chechens who need that railroad. Their lives may depend on it.

With a report from The Associated Press

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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