A second round of torture and killings of sexual minorities in Chechnya brings home the dangers facing LBGTQ people in many parts of the world. It also reminds us how little Western governments can do to help them.
The latest purge, according to the Russian LGBT Network, began in late December after Chechen authorities detained the moderator of a social-media group used by LGBTQ people in Chechnya and the North Caucuses region. Officials used the man’s phone to obtain contact info of people he knew and began rounding up suspects.
Since then, according to the network, 40 people, both men and women, have been held and tortured, and two killed. This purge follows a similar one carried out in the early part of 2017 that led to several deaths.
“Widespread detentions, torture and killings of gay people have resumed in Chechnya,” Igor Kochetkov, who is program director at the Russian LGBT Network, said on Monday. “Persecution of men and women suspected of being gay never stopped. It’s only that its scale has been changing.”
The crackdown has been at least partially confirmed by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which broke the story of the 2017 purge, and by the Associated Press.
Although homosexual acts are not illegal in the Russian federation, the autonomous republic of Chechnya is largely Muslim and deeply intolerant toward sexual minorities. During the 2017 purge, many of those who had been detained or who feared being detained fled to other parts of Russia, where they were protected in safe houses.
That summer, Ottawa secretly arranged to spirit to Canada dozens of LGBTQ people from Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucuses; 57 arrived in total.
In a statement sent to The Globe and Mail, Adam Austen, a spokesman for Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, said the Canadian government was attempting to “urgently gather more information,” about the latest purge.
“The persecution and torture LGBTQ2 people faced in Chechnya is abhorrent," the statement went on. "That is why, when we became aware of a previous campaign of hatred two years ago, we acted.” However, the government had no comment on what action it might take this time.
Kimahli Powell is executive director of Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian-based non-governmental organization that helps LGBTQ people at risk move to places that are safer. His organization worked with the federal government to bring the Chechen refugees out of Russia in 2017.
The organization is “monitoring the situation closely,” he said in an interview, but doesn’t know yet whether or how many people may need to be relocated.
“If we see an uptick of people escaping to safe houses, then we will look at what kind of response we have,” he said. For now, his organization is encouraging governments to pressure Russia and Chechnya to end the detentions.
International condemnation in 2017 eventually led the Moscow government to pressure the regime in Grozny to scale back persecutions. A report on those persecutions released in December by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe found “very serious human rights violations in the Chechen Republic,” along with “a culture of impunity” among security forces.
Graeme Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at the NGO Human Rights Watch, said in an interview on Monday that the timing of the detentions, coming in the wake of the release of the OSCE report, suggests the latest roundups were “an act of retaliation by Chechen authorities" – a finger in the eye of European governments seeking to hold the regime in Grozny to account.
Mr. Reid urged Western governments to pressure Moscow to once again lean on Ramzan Kadyrov to end the latest roundup.
Whether it is Tanzanian officials vowing to hunt down homosexuals in Dar es Salaam, Eastern European populists who regularly deride LGBTQ people in their midst, or Chechen authorities grabbing gay young men off the street, beating them up and sometimes killing them, life for sexual minorities is precarious in much of the world.
Western governments acting in unison can sometimes force regimes to back off the worst abuses. But for most folk in most places, being queer is not safe. Especially in Chechnya.
With files from the Associated Press