“The Russian authorities have shown themselves to be complicit in heinous crimes committed in Chechnya against people believed to be gay or lesbian,” said Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia Marie Struthers on April 1.
A new report from the international human rights organization is condemning Russian authorities for “state-sponsored homophobia and impunity” in the face of ongoing purges targeting Chechnya’s LGBTQ community.
Unfortunately, Amnesty International’s condemnation is likely to go unheard. Chechen authorities have been carrying out anti-LGBTQ violence on a cyclical basis since January 2017, subjecting members of the community to detentions, torture and even extrajudicial killings.
So far, outcry and objections from international institutions have had little effect. Anti-LGBTQ violence in Chechnya has been going on for years – and in the face of international inaction, the authorities show no signs of stopping.
“Barely Alive From Beatings”
Two years ago, leading independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta revealed purges targeting men from the LGBTQ community in Chechnya – a Federal Subject of Russia located in the North Caucasus. Although the story broke in April 2017, the detentions and persecutions had reportedly begun at the beginning of the year.
By the end of January 2017, over 200 people had been detained as a result of sweep operations. None of the detainees were officially registered or presented with the criminal charges they faced. 27 were made victims of extrajudicial killings, all of whom allegedly died on the night of January 25.
According to a Human Rights Watch report released in May of that year, dozens of men in Chechnya suspected of being gay were being held in unofficial detention facilities for days on end. There, they were humiliated, starved and tortured. Those returned to their families were outed as gay, and relatives were encouraged to carry out honor killings. Many returned “barely alive from beatings.” Others forcibly disappeared.
Chechen officials reacted strongly to Novaya Gazeta’s report, but rather than denying the allegations of detentions, torture and murder, they simply claimed that gay people do not exist in Chechnya.
Almost immediately the Russian LGBT Network – a human rights NGO with 14 regional divisions across the Russian Federation – began working with advocates in Russia and abroad to evacuate gay men from the region. Meanwhile, international pressure led to reports of the suspension of LGBTQ purges after six weeks of repressions.
But this didn’t last long. Detentions of gay men quickly resumed and were soon accompanied by even graver violations of human rights.
In August 2017, Chechnya’s police reportedly went so far as to declare some gay men members of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organization, adding them to wanted lists in what was likely a bid to prevent their evacuation from the region.
While initial testimonies emerged from male victims, it was later revealed that queer women are also being targeted. “Since January 2018, human rights defenders began receiving information that lesbians and transgender women were [being] detained in secret prisons, where they were sexually abused,” Caucasian Knot reported.
“End the Climate of Impunity” – OSCE
Today, the effects of the crackdown continue as Russian authorities have failed to provide justice for its victims. “It’s clear that the perpetrators have gone unpunished because of state-sponsored homophobia and impunity for human rights violations in Chechnya,” Marie Struthers said, on behalf of Amnesty International.
International institutions have been largely unsuccessful in stopping anti-LGBTQ violence in the Chechen Republic. On 1 November 2018, 16 states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) invoked the “Moscow Mechanism” to investigate “allegations of impunity for reported human rights violations and abuses in Chechnya.”
As a result, the OSCE was able to “confirm the major allegations” and called for the “immediate shutdown of all unofficial detention facilities in Chechnya.” The Organization also advised the Chechen authorities to “end the climate of impunity by holding to account all perpetrators of human rights violations, including members of the police and other security forces.”
The OSCE advised the Russian Federation to “establish a special investigative committee” and conduct “an effective, impartial and transparent investigation of the allegations.” Otherwise, “an independent investigation should take place with international experts having access to all relevant places and the full protection of the authorities,” the OSCE stated.
Only one victim of Chechnya’s crackdown has attempted to seek justice in the Russian Federation thus far. In September 2017, Maxim Lapunov filed a formal complaint in Moscow, despite having been “threatened with retribution if he complained to the authorities.”
Following his abduction on the street in Chechnya in March of that year, “[Lapunov] was held for 12 days in the cellar of a police station, where he was beaten, and tortured. He could also witness others undergoing the same treatment. He was told that he would be killed,” the OSCE reported. “[He] believes that the fact that his sister alerted the Ombudsman of the Perm region saved him.”
Although the main Investigative Committee of the North Caucasus registered his claim, the pre-investigation remained inconclusive – and without criminal proceedings – due to a lack of cooperation from the Chechen authorities. In October 2017, Lapunov left the Russian Federation due to concerns for his safety.
“After this exhaustion of local remedies, the case is expected to be submitted to the European Court of Human Rights. There are also efforts to bring the whole campaign against LGBTI people to the International Criminal Court as a crime against humanity,” the OSCE claimed.
According to the Russian LGBT Network, the Russian Federation ignored the invocation of the mechanism and was therefore unable to appoint an expert to the investigation.
“Shocking Disregard for Human Lives and Dignity”
Sadly, the OSCE’s recommendations to Moscow seem to have gone unheeded. LGBTQ purges have continued even after the “Moscow Mechanism” was invoked. Starting in late December 2018, the Chechen authorities detained 40 more people (both men and women) – and two were killed.
“At least two detainees died as a result of torture. We also know that detentions are carried out by law enforcers and the victims are illegally kept in Argun [a town in Chechnya where so-called gay concentration camps are located]," said Igor Kochetkov, Executive Director of the Russian LGBT Network, in a press release.
On January 21, 2019 the Network announced that following a new wave of wide-scale persecutions the organization had begun evacuations from Chechnya once more. Victims have described repressions including “cruel and violent” torture targeting both men and women.
In response, the advocacy organization’s Executive Director Igor Kochetkov filed a complaint to the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, urging them to look into the most recent reports of illegal detentions, torture and murder.
“The detained were severely beaten, sexually abused, [and] were tortured with the [sic] electric current. They were also forced to sign empty forms,” the Network stated.
Igor Kochetkov is currently facing death threats following the distribution of a video via social media on January 29. And despite his decision to file a formal complaint, Russian police have yet to open an official investigation, Amnesty International reported.
“The shocking disregard to human lives and dignity has reached a new low as the authorities have neglected to carry out a thorough investigation,” Marie Struthers said.
Last week, a St. Petersburg court ruled the police inaction in the case unlawful. As such, Struthers urged the Russian authorities to “implement the court’s ruling” and conduct an “effective investigation into the death threats against Igor Kochetkov.”
Inaction over the LGBTQ purges in Chechnya has also enabled similar persecutions targeting the community in neighbouring Azerbaijan. Roundups and arrests first took place there in 2017, and were recently renewed in coordinated raids on LGBTQ people in the country’s capital, Baku, Eurasianet reported.
The European Court of Human Rights recently began a formal inquiry into the 2017 raids, calling on victims and the Azerbaijani government for information.
The Russian LGBT Network has evacuated around 150 people from the Southern Russian region of Chechnya since April 2017. 130 of them have found asylum outside of Russia.
/By Eilish Hart