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Chechnya LGBT crisis 2.0: what questions we need to be asking

New reports of mass arrests, torture and murder of LGBT people in Chechnya remind us that accountability is tragically lacking in this Russian republic.

Akhmad Kadyrov's move to support Russian forces paved the way for a new "hard" peace in Chechnya. (c) Bai Xueqi/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved. On 11 January, 2019, Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper reported a new wave of Chechen LGBT community arrests. Three days later, the Russian LGBT Network posted “New wave of persecution against the LGBT people in Chechnya: around 40 detained, at least two killed”.

As the story develops, it’s worth examining the reasons behind the new purge and analyse what trends this new tragedy could bring to the Eurasia region.

First thoughts

If you type “Chechnya” into Google, “Chechen war,” “Chechnya violence” and “Chechnya leader” are the first suggestions which pop up. Sadly, these words capture much about this mountainous region a thousand miles south of Moscow.

After a decade of two devastating wars between Chechen guerrilla forces and federal Russian troops in the 1990s, Chechnya disappeared from the headlines of global newspapers into the monstrous grip of its leader Ramzan Kadyrov. In the following decade, Kadyrov transformed from a shy boy in a sports suit into a ruthless provincial dictator who enjoys a bromance with president Vladimir Putin himself. Kadyrov wasted no time turning violence and arbitrariness into a tradition in Chechnya and beyond.

“We don’t have any gays!” exclaims Ramzan Kadyrov in an interview with HBO, adding that if any were found in Chechnya, Canada should take them, so as to “purify our blood.” Image still via YouTube / NSBC. In early 2017, the eyes of the world turned to Kadyrov, calling Chechnya a hotbed of severe atrocities against its LGBT community. At that time, horrifying stories of mass detentions, torture and murders erupted, followed by mass evacuation of LGBT community members and global outrage. Hundreds of newspaper articles, dozens of concern statements and two years later, the mass detentions, torture and murders of the LGBT people have restarted.

Is there a new crisis in Chechnya?

As more stories about attacks make it to the news, everyone is wondering whether Chechnya is in the midst of a second LGBT crisis. But Novaya Gazeta’s lead reporter Elena Milashina says the first crisis never ended.

“Nothing has really indicated that the 2017 crisis stopped,” Milashina says. “There was the first wave, and there were lots of people who got detained and tortured. And throughout the past two years the attacks were continuing, the numbers of those affected just got lower. Nobody cancelled the order for the [gay] cleansing.”

A representative of the Russian LGBT network confirms that the arrests continued throughout 2017-2018: “We had cases of arrested LGBT persons in Chechnya as late as September 2018. Therefore we can’t say that this month the arrests started second time. But we can confirm that Chechen authorities started mass arrests again.”

Why and what is happening?

Reportedly, the second wave of mass arrests started because the Chechen authorities detained a man who was in charge of a VKontakte social media page for LGBT Chechens, and therefore had many contacts in the community.

Milashina, who has been covering the LGBT crisis in Chechnya, says that she is most sad about the fact that after the first wave of mass arrests in 2017 many people “didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation” and “didn’t take safety precautions”.

Those involved in the evacuation say that this time around there appears to be more cases of murder, and there are more cases of women being affected.

Confirming the facts is difficult. As Milashina puts it, “Chechnya is a closed region, it’s like North Korea.” The Chechen authorities are known for harassing, torturing and murdering other groups of population, such as people falsely accused of terrorism offences. In those cases, the families of victims help journalists and civil society workers verify facts and shed light on them. In the case of the LGBT community, Chechnya’s homophobic society stays silent.

Chechen law enforcement enjoys an absence of accountability and carte-blanche from higher authorities. This means that when an LGBT person is captured, the scenarios of what happens next can vary, depending on their ability to pay a bribe and family connections in the government. Some are tortured and released, others are released to their families, and then the authorities force the families to murder them; in other cases, people are able to escape Chechnya after the release. Female victims are more likely to end up murdered, says Milashina, because women’s lives cost less in Chechnya. And because families often become accomplices in these crimes, they remain silent.

A representative of the Russian LGBT Network say that not all the arrested victims have yet been released, and the arrests continue. The network is working on relocating people, but they are yet to receive many requests for relocation. Two years ago, in 2017, the mass arrests started in January, but the first relocation requests started in April, therefore the network expects more requests to roll in.

What can stop the attacks?

But while the evacuation is ongoing, one can’t stop wondering, why, despite the global outcry, the arrests didn’t stop and instead intensified. Many blame a lack of accountability within Chechnya, in relation to the federal authorities in Russia, but also before the global community.

One of the problems with accountability is that many people who have suffered traumatic experiences are unwilling to testify publicly against their torturers. Maxim Lapunov, an ethnic Russian man who went public about his 12-day ordeal in October 2017, continues to receive threats. Chechen victims are afraid, and being labeled a “pervert” in a deeply homophobic society is not so much of a concern as having their whole extended family eliminated by law enforcement.

Maxim Lapunov, centre, at a news conference in the office of Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Moscow. Image: Human Rights Watch. Russian civil society groups and journalists have requested that the Russian Federal Investigative Committee investigate these crimes, and the LGBT Network is currently preparing another application with new names.

“We are applying to the Investigative Committee and are citing the name of one person who we were informed had been killed, we were able to verify that case completely,” says the LGBT network representative. “We have done these kind of applications on multiple occasions in the past. And we are asking that the Federal Investigative Committee looks into it, not Chechen law enforcement. But usually, as in the case of Maxim Lapunov, it is the Chechen police who investigate atrocities committed by the Chechen police.”

On 31 January, Chechen police officers attempted to detain lawyer Alexander Karavayev after he entered an unmarked police station in Grozny in search of a client. Karavayev represents Bekhkan Yusupov, a gay Chechen man who returned to Chechnya in December 2018 after receiving asylum in France, and who was detained by police on arrival.

Did the Moscow Mechanism help or trigger further attacks?

On the international level, the biggest success in terms of advocacy and accountability regarding the Chechnya LGBT crisis has been attributed to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)’s Moscow Mechanism. This mechanism was established in 1991 to be used in cases of grave human rights violations, and “provides the option of sending missions of experts to assist participating States in the resolution of a particular question or problem”. Previously, the mechanism has been used rarely, and, up until Chechnya, never against the Russian Federation.

Police station in Chernorechye, Grozny. where police attempted to detain lawyer Alexander Karavayev. Source: Novaya Gazeta. Over the past year, the OSCE states have addressed a number of questions to Russia, which it hasn’t been able to respond to. Austrian professor Wolfgang Benedek was appointed rapporteur, and in December 2018 he published a comprehensive report on the Chechen LGBT crisis. When the second mass arrests wave started in January 2019, some voiced theories over whether the Moscow Mechanism report triggered them.

A representative of the LGBT Network points out that there are  confirmations of mass arrests from early December 2018, before the OSCE report was published. Milashina says that the report is first of all a legal documentation of torture and extrajudicial murders in Chechnya.

“This report also gives recommendations to Chechnya (and thus confirms that Chechnya is not the same as the rest of Russia), to Russia, but also to the European states. Now it is time for those European states to follow these recommendations,” says Milashina.

The LGBT Network adds that they also plan invoking the UN Committee Against Torture by submitting information on cases of grave rights violations and torture, but their work in that regards was stopped due to the new crisis.

What happens in Chechnya stays in Chechnya?

Even with all the advocacy and reports, Chechnya remains a closed region, which makes an independent analysis of the crisis difficult. Getting a full picture of what’s happening inside Chechen law enforcement, and not just in the LGBT crisis, is near impossible without whistleblowers.

Who can come forward in Chechnya? Milashina says that there have been cases when representatives of Chechen law enforcement who didn’t want to be part of grave crimes against humanity escaped and asked for asylum in Europe.

But EU current asylum procedures are standardised, and do not alot Chechen refugees a lot of attention. According to Milashina, most of these LGBT asylum seekers were turned down and had to return to Russia. These people could have helped shed light on the situation in Chechnya, Milashina says, but “who would say anything when they know they aren’t protected.”

And while facts about Chechnya’s rights violations often don’t make it outside of the region, the absence of accountability can lead to escalated violence against LGBT communities. In 2017, following Chechnya’s example, Azerbaijan started mass arrests of the LGBT community, and Tajikistan created a register of LGBT persons.

“A bad example is contagious,” says the Russian LGBT Network representative, adding that this is why the Chechen authorities must be held accountable — otherwise crises like the one in Chechnya can spread.  

 


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