According to various reports, more than 100 gay men are currently being tortured in prisons in Chechnya for their sexual orientation. Novaya Gazeta, the leading independent newspaper in Russia, which broke the news of the mass detentions, wrote that the men had been captured by the Chechen authorities and then moved to concentration-like prisons in the city of Argun. At least three are feared dead.
This led to lots of coverage internationally, and for the last two weeks the international community has been slowly waking up to the atrocities in Chechnya.
However, a quick search through the Russian news posts of the past two weeks shows almost no mentions of mass abductions of Chechen gay men. Considering that the abductions and torture continue today, it seems a very surprising search result.
Although when you think about it, not so much.
Russia’s position on LGBT rights is notorious: Human Rights Watch (HRW) repeatedly emphasises not only Russia’s systemic failure to protect the human rights of the LGBTQI population, but also its active approach towards criminalising the very existence of these people.
The last big legal push was in January of 2016, when the State Duma attempted to pass another bill banning any display of public affection among gay and lesbian people.
“It is hard to exaggerate the sinister absurdity and abusive intent of this bill – it would effectively outlaw being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) and penalise people for expressing their identity, a crucial part of anyone’s existence,” said Tatiana Cooper of HRW.
Artyom Burkov was one of the people at the forefront of protesting the bill, mobilising more than 46,000 Russians with his online petition and successfully pushing the State Duma to abandon it. It was a step forward in the campaign against homophobic laws, but never a full victory.
According to a 2015 poll conducted by Russian research organisation, Levada Center, 76 per cent of Russians believe that homosexuality is a disease or a form of sexual perversion that needs to be treated.
Meanwhile, in one of his interviews, Putin reassured the public that Russia was a safe place for LGBT people: “We don’t ban anything, we don’t grab people, we don’t have any [criminal or administrative] responsibility for these type of relations, unlike many other countries.”
Such mixed messages about the reality in Russia are not uncommon. Human rights activists, journalists and average citizens often face double standards when speaking up about economic growth, censorship and, of course, political events around Ukraine and Syria.
This is precisely why the comments of Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, who suggested that gay male detention victims should turn to Chechen courts, were more insulting to the LGBT community than helpful.
In such an environment, legal framework is, unsurprisingly, ineffective. And the events of the last two weeks show the potentially catastrophic consequences of such ineffective policies and double standards.
The situation in Chechnya has always been especially bleak. Families of victims of police abuse often do not report the abuse if it was carried out because their relative was gay (that’s if their relative is even released in the first place). They fear public humiliation and even honour killings, which are also widespread in Chechnya and often never investigated.
Gay men in Chechnya are undoubtedly the most disempowered people in Russia today. And the help of the international community is more important than ever.
That is why Igor Yasin, an LGBT activist from Russia, started his international campaign calling on the Prosecutor General to immediately investigate the mass torture of gay men in the Chechen republic. He hopes to virtually organise all 40,000 of his supporters around concrete actions and deliver a strong message to the Russian government.
Online petitions have worked in the past: 290,000 people stopped the so-called “gay panic” law in Australia, allowing attacks on LGBT people simply out of fear of being approached. Some 480,000 people pushed for Boy Scouts organisations in the US to stop denying gay youth the opportunity to join.
Yasin is hoping the same will happen in Russia. When people come together, change can be made.
Dmitry Savelau is the Russian country director for change.org
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