Chechnya: Two tortured to death and 40 others held in new gay ‘purge’, activists say

‘This was only possible because of the Kadyrov regime and its policy of cleansing Chechen blood from what it sees as harmful elements,’ says head of Russian LGBT Network

Oliver Carroll
Moscow
Monday 14 January 2019 10:13
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Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov: 'We don't have any gays here. Such people are subhuman'

At least two people have reportedly been killed in what appears to be another crackdown on gay men and women in Chechnya.

The news comes nearly two years after reports first emerged of mass arrests and torture in the Islamic republic on Russia’s southern border.

Then, over two months in early 2017, at least three people were killed and nearly 200 people tortured, with many still missing.

In a video address published on Monday, Igor Kochetkov, head of the Russian LGBT Network, said at least another 40 people have been arrested and tortured in the latest wave. Two of them “did not survive the torture”, he said.

While arbitrary arrests and torture have continued at a lower level since early 2017, it is understood the new reports mark a major new chapter in the affair.

According to Mr Kochetkov, the latest arrests followed the 29 December detention of an administrator of an LGBT+ social media group. That arrest led to a large database of names and contact details falling into the hands of authorities, he told The Independent.

The majority of the arrested were taken to a detention centre in Argun, a semi-legal facility that achieved notoriety during the last wave of arrests. They were tortured, forced to sign blank witness statements, and threatened with fabricated criminal prosecutions.

Some have since been released to their families, Mr Kochetkov said, but only with the expectation of further punishment.

The region’s irascible leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is tolerated and supported by the Kremlin in exchange for security guarantees, has denied issuing an order for the 2017 crackdown. But on several occasions he has also made it clear that Chechnya remains hostile to gay men and women.

Mr Kochetkov said it was unfathomable Mr Kadyrov and leading members of his security apparatus did not play a direct role in the latest events.

“They were only possible because of the Kadyrov regime and its policy of cleansing Chechen blood from what it sees as harmful elements,” he said. “But the greater responsibility lies on [Moscow’s] shoulders. They failed to properly investigate the crimes of 2017, and any investigations they allowed were of a formal nature – intent on covering up tracks.”

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For a long time, Moscow authorities said they could not investigate the allegations, since “no witness had come forward”. With the taboo nature of homosexuality in Chechnya, and the risk of “honour” killings, this was hardly surprising, and few expected the situation to change. But in October 2017, one man, a Russian national who had been working in Chechnya, stepped forward.

In an emotional press conference, 30-year-old Maxim Lapunov recounted the terror of his own 12-day incarceration in March 2017. He described the howling, torture and blood-soaked cellars of the Argun detention centre.

“I was sure they were going to kill me,” he told journalists. “I was preparing for that.”

But Mr Lapunov’s revelations did not lead to an investigation in any real sense. After hitting a brick wall, he took his case to the European Court of Human Rights. He has since been evacuated out of Russia on safety grounds.

In December the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe published a long-awaited report documenting wide scale rights violations in Chechnya. Condemning the extrajudicial arrests, torture and killing of LGBT+ people, it opened up the possibility of future prosecutions in the International Criminal Court.

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In the absence of any real intervention from Moscow, Mr Kochetkov’s Russian LGBT Network remains the front line of efforts to protect at-risk Chechens. Working in difficult conditions, the group provides psychological support and organises evacuation to safer Russian regions — and, on occasion, abroad.

On Thursday, the network issued a warning for all gay men and women to flee the region, and The Independent understands several have taken up the opportunity.

But leaving is not always a straightforward choice, said Ekaterina Sokrianskaia, director of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre.

Merkel raises concerns with Putin over Chechnya 'torture' of gay men

Complicated family relations create desperate conditions for LGBT+ Chechens. On the one hand, they face the risk of “honour” punishments from relatives. Authorities have been particularly effective in using this as a way of outsourcing their own violence.

On another hand, Chechens understand attempts to flee the region may have knock-on effects for their family.

“The principle of collective responsibility has been applied very broadly in Chechnya for years,” said Ms Sokrianskaia. “They know that if they flee, their brothers, cousins, fathers and sometimes even women in the family could be subjected to this horror. And many decide to bear the responsibility themselves.”

Leaving the region is not always an escape from punishment. Authorities have also been known to place fleeing gay men and women on Interpol wanted lists — falsely claiming they had returned from fighting in Syria.

"As soon as the word Syria appears on computer screens, migration authorities are never interested in the detail of what happened,” she says. “They simply deport.”

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Many are understandably afraid to entertain such risks, and become so paralysed they are unable to devise survivor strategies to get out.

“To coin a Russian phrase, it is like rabbits looking at a boa constrictor,” says Sokrianskskaia.

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