Throughout his decade-long tenure as the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov has shown a disdain for human rights and persecuted marginalized groups. The LGBT community, and gay men in particular, became the principal target of Kadyrov’s forces in late February. International outcry has pressured the Russian government to take action, but individuals are still threatened with violence and discrimination. World Policy Journal spoke with Tanya Lokshina, the Russian program director and a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, about Kadyrov’s history of human rights violations and the challenges facing Chechnyas’s LGBT community.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: What is the current state of Chechnya’s LGBT community and how has it changed since you began reporting on it?
TANYA LOKSHINA: From the last week of February through at least the first week of April, Chechen law enforcement and security officials carried out a major anti-gay purge. It was an organized operation sanctioned by top-level Chechen authorities. During that operation, dozens of presumably gay men were rounded up by security officials and dragged off to secret prisons of sorts, where they were tortured and asked questions about other gay people. That’s how the number of victims increased. Most of them returned to their respective families, and some had their sexual orientation exposed to their family members, putting them in a terrible situation because honor killings are still very much a reality in Chechnya. From what we know, about 100 people were victims of the purge and dozens were otherwise affected—they were not detained, but were evacuated with the assistance of the Russian LGBT Network. Some of those people have found safety abroad, but others are still in Russia hiding in safe houses, which frankly aren’t so safe. Human Rights Watch has interviewed some of the detainees and those otherwise affected, and their testimonies are very strong and very consistent, leaving no doubt as to the veracity of their allegations.
Now, what’s happened? The reports of an anti-gay purge caused outcry across the world and there has been a lot of international pressure on the Kremlin. Major protest demonstrations were held in front of Russian embassies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally raised the issue to Vladimir Putin when she was on a visit to Sochi. Foreign ministers from France, Germany, the U.K., Switzerland, and the Netherlands sent a joint letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, urging the Russian government to conduct this investigation. This level of international concern and pressure is truly unprecedented. The Kremlin has not seen something like this for many years, over Chechnya in particular, and the pressure actually worked. The Kremlin stopped simply shrugging off the allegations, and Putin even met with [Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadyrov in Moscow and apparently told him to call off the purge. There will be an investigation and Putin promised to speak about the situation directly with the minister for internal affairs and the prosecutor general. Again, these moves are quite unprecedented. I’ve been doing Chechnya research for very many years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.
WPJ: In a recent article, you wrote, “Russia’s leadership is clearly aware of the extent to which Chechen authorities have violated human rights including freedom of expression.” If Russia’s leadership is aware of these grievances, why did it take so long for them to do something?
TL: Like I said, the international pressure that the Kremlin faced over Ramzan Kadyrov’s anti-gay purge was just unprecedented. That’s the only reason why Putin met with Kadyrov in Moscow and had a discussion about the situation.
WPJ: What makes the government less likely to investigate events in Chechnya?
TL: Ramzan Kadyrov has been running Chechnya for over a decade now with tacit blessings from the Kremlin. He’s been building a tyranny there, eradicating even the mildest forms of dissent. Law enforcement and security officials under his de facto control have been carrying out operations within different groups of undesirables, starting with suspected insurgence sympathizers and collaborators, to Salafi Muslims, to suspected drug users, to critics of the government. These people have been dragged off and held in unacknowledged places of detention, and they’re being tortured.
So, whatever happens to dozens of presumably gay men isn’t very different than what had been happening earlier to critics of the government. Authorities are using the same toolbox, and for years and years the Kremlin let them get away with it and allowed Kadyrov to rule Chechnya through brutal repression in exchange, apparently, for effectively suppressing insurgency on the ground. This continued for years because Kadyrov was able to keep his end of the bargain. Between roughly 2007 through the end of 2015 the security situation in Chechnya was okay, and there were several years when insurgent activities were practically down to zero. Then the situation started getting out of hand. In December 2015 there was a major attack on the citadel of Grozny, Chechnya—the first such attack in quite a few years. Since then, the number of insurgent attacks in Chechnya has been on the rise, so it seems that Kadyrov is no longer able to pull off his end of the deal.
WPJ: How confident are you that the Kremlin’s investigation will adequately address injustices?
TL: Given Kadyrov’s decade-long history of impunity for grievous human rights violations, I’m not too hopeful, but at the same time you have to be realistic. We know that this vicious got called off. That only happened as a result of staggering international pressure, but it’s better than nothing. I’m also confident that if international pressure is not sustained, the Kremlin would be happy to just wipe the issue off its agenda altogether and then Ramzan Kadyrov would very likely resume the operation. So, am I hopeful that the perpetrators will be brought to justice in the near future? Unfortunately, no, but if pressure is sustained, then there is a lower likelihood of the purge resuming.
WPJ: In a recent interview Kadyrov said journalists reporting on LGBT rights in Chechnya are “devils.” What challenges have you faced while reporting in such a hostile environment?
TL: I’ve been working in Chechnya since very early in the Second Chechen War, before Ramzan Kadyrov, and it’s always been very difficult for journalists and human rights defenders to work there. But since Ramzan Kadyrov came to power, it has become practically impossible for journalists and human rights defenders to operate on the ground. We documented numerous cases where independent journalists were unlawfully detained and thrown out of Chechnya, and we also knew that several Chechen activists were killed. Natalya Estemirova, who was possibly the most prominent human rights defender in Chechnya, was abducted by apparent law enforcement and security officials next to her apartment building in Grozny in July 2009. She was found dead several hours later, and the murder has not been effectively investigated. There has been no justice for this terrible crime. Attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, and murders of activists, have created a situation where activist groups will not even work with cases of abductions, disappearances, and torture—it’s simply too dangerous.
If organizations from mainland Russia try to travel to Chechnya, speak to victims, and provide legal or other forms of assistance to victims, they quickly get into trouble. An organization called Joint Mobile Group of Human Rights Defenders in Chechnya, which provided legal aid to victims of crimes by local law enforcement and security officials, saw its office in Chechnya destroyed by people working for the government several times. Their members were attacked, too, and last year they finally had to pull their team from Chechnya because they could not provide further security. It’s almost impossible to do human rights work. I cannot overemphasize that the methods used in anti-gay purges in many ways are no different than the methods law enforcement and security officials have been using against other groups, such as traitors to the government and suspected drug users.
Several media outlets reported that Kadyrov kept gay people in special concentration camps, but that’s really far from true. Gay people were dragged off to the same unlawful detention centers that have existed for a long time, and they were held there together with insurgence sympathizers, suspected jihadists, suspected drug users, and others. The story of Chechnya’s anti-gay purge is not only a story about persecution of gay people in Chechnya, but is also the story of Kadyrov’s repressive regime, a regime that tortures and disappears undesirables, including, but not limited to, gay people.
WPJ: What has the public’s response been to these events, both in Chechnya and in other parts of Russia?
TL: Unfortunately, the level of homophobia in Russia is quite high and the situation deteriorated further with adoption of the infamous gay propaganda ban in 2013. This law actively prohibits dissemination of any productive information about gay people and gay relationships, supposedly in order to protect children from harmful information. The European Court of Human Rights delivered a ruling on this ban, saying it was in fact harmful to children because they were being deprived of important information. The court ruled that the gay propaganda law is clearly discriminatory. In this homophobic environment, there is little sympathy for gay victims of the purge. The international outcry on the issue has been much stronger than the domestic outcry.
WPJ: What do you think the future holds for the LGBT community and other marginalized communities in Chechnya?
TL: We have documented numerous incidents of harassment and persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya—they are beaten, abused, and extorted by police officials. Police would identify a gay man and threaten to expose them to their families, saying they have compromising photographs. Even before the purge, the situation was impossible for gay people. We also know of several cases where lesbians, young women in particular, were threatened with honor killings by family members and had to flee Chechnya.
Basically, gay people in Chechnya could not come out of the closet. The people that we interviewed, including some victims of the purge, told us how they have to look over their over their shoulders at all times, how they cannot live without fear, how they cannot do the simplest things like put their cell phones on the table for fear that a family member will see something compromising or suspicious. They would not go online without checking that no one was present in the room or could open the door. There was no way they could tell their family members, even their closest relatives, about their sexual orientation.
During the purge, local security officials would detain one person, torture him, and ask him, “Which other gay people do you know? Did you have sex with any of them?” Lacking evidence, local officials would eventually they let them go, and those individuals would tell their families, “Of course I’m not gay!” But eventually, they had to flee Chechnya because of the legitimate fear that law enforcement officials would come for them again. So they fled thinking, “If my family finds out, if my family knew for certain that I’m gay, that’s worse than death.” Imagine the level of fear and humiliation. Chechen officials have also been very vocal about condoning and even propagating honor killings—high-level officials, including Kadyrov himself, have described gay people as filth, denied their very existence, and pointed out on numerous occasions that if there were gay people in Chechnya their relatives would kill them.
In a new documentary by HBO, Kadyrov expresses these sentiments in an interview, saying things like “they don’t exist” and “we have to purify our.” This tells you a lot about the situation of gay people in Chechnya. It’s absolutely intolerable. We’ve recently received reports of law enforcement and security officials coming to the houses of relatives of gay people who fled, asking questions and making it clear to them that unless those people return to Chechnya the whole family will be in trouble. That’s typical of Kadyrov’s regime; one of the methods they use to suppress disobedience is collective punishment. If they cannot get a specific individual they go after the relatives. There are concerns now that the families of the gay people who fled will be persecuted. While purge itself was suspended, the situation of gay people in Chechnya is still absolutely devastating.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Interview conducted by Lucas Dean]
[Photo courtesy of Tanya Lokshina]