A terrifying report from the independent Russian publication Novaya Gazeta earlier this month detailed the alleged detainment and torture of gay men in Chechnya, shining a light on the potential dangers facing LGBTQ people in the region. This campaign of violence has reportedly resulted in the death of at least three men among more than 100 detainees. In the weeks since the original Novaya Gazeta report, the non-governmental advocacy organization Human Rights Watch confirmed the reporting was "consistent" with information they had been given from their own "numerous trusted sources."
These reports have drawn concern in the international community, including in a statement released by the U.S. State Department. "We are deeply disturbed by recent public statements by Chechen authorities that condone and incite violence against LGBTI persons," acting spokesperson Mark C. Toner said last week. "We urge Russian federal authorities to speak out against such practices, take steps to ensure the release of anyone wrongfully detained, conduct an independent and credible investigation into these reports, and hold any perpetrators responsible." Requests for Russia to intervene with an investigation, thus far, have gone unfulfilled.
But with the growing media coverage surrounding these disturbing reports comes a few instances of misinformation, Ukrainian journalist Maxim Eristavi and others have cautioned. The Argun detention center, for example, has been described in several reports as a "gay concentration camp." Eristavi told NBC News Wednesday that such a comparison is dangerous. "Calling it a concentration camp is actually inaccurate," Eristavi, who is openly gay, said. "Creating more misinformation can damage and endanger people on the ground and discredit those who are trying to bring more attention to the issue."
Here's what we know about Chechnya's alleged campaign of violence against gay men so far:
Gay men have allegedly been detained, tortured, and killed.
The Russian LGBT Network's Natalia Poplevskaya said victims "either gay or just perceived as gay" were being held at a detention center in Argun, roughly 13 miles from the capital city of Grozny. Poplevskaya backed up Novaya Gazeta's initial report, telling BBC News Tuesday that authorities were carrying out an "organized campaign" to detain gay men. Victims are reportedly subjected to torture involving the use of electric shock and "beatings with cables," she added. The sweep is believed to have started in February.
The detainments reportedly began when a gay rights group in Moscow started filing demonstration requests in provincial Russian cities. Though the North Caucasus area (including Chechnya, a republic of Russia) had not been the focus of these efforts, the Washington Post noted that the move "galvanized" a "prophylactic sweep" of gay men. One method of tracking down victims, the Novaya Gazeta report alleged, involved the utilization of fake social media accounts.
Ramzan Kadyrov has denied these reports.
A spokesperson for Ramzan Kadyrov, the Head of the Chechen Republic, said reports of the persecution of gay men were simply an attempt at discrediting the republic. Kadyrov's spokesperson Alvi Karimov also claimed to Interfax that the article was an "absolute lie." Kadyrov, notably, was once described as a "coward armed to the teeth and surrounded by security guards" by a journalist who would later be found dead outside her apartment building just days later.
Kadyrov has also denied the existence of gay men in Chechnya.
Kadyrov, through his spokesperson, didn't stop at denying the Novaya Gazeta's report. He also denied the very existence of gay men in the region. "You cannot arrest or repress people who just don't exist in the republic," Karimov told Interfax. "If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them since their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return." Karimov's statement seemingly references the practice of "honor killings," in which victims are attacked by their own family.
Activists are working to help potential victims flee the area and obtain shelter.
The Russian LGBT Network launched an emergency hotline earlier this month after the release of Novaya Gazeta's report. In the two weeks since, Poplevskaya told NBC News, the hotline has logged 30 unique messages from both residents and former residents of Chechnya. The Russian LGBT Network is also assisting gay and bisexual men in successfully evacuating the area, but has refrained from revealing details on those efforts to ensure safety. "The people who have been targeted by the campaign need some time to get back to normal life," Poplevskaya said. Those wanting to contact the Russian LGBT Network are advised to be cautious in their communications.
You can help too.
Did you know there might be a Russian embassy located near you? This (non-government) website allows you to click your location on a map to display a list of consulates. Send them an email. You can also join Amnesty International's call for Chechnya to stop the abduction and killing of gay men by signing this petition, which aims to put pressure on on Russian and Chechen authorities to thoroughly investigate these reports.
"The Chechen government won't admit that gay men even exist in Chechnya, let alone that they ordered what the police call 'preventive mopping up' of people they deem undesirable," Amnesty International explained. "We urgently need your help to call out the Chechen government on the persecution of people who are, as they put it, of 'non-traditional orientation', and urge immediate action to ensure their safety." At the time of this writing, the petition was close to reaching its goal of 150,000 signatures.