Around 40 people have been detained and another two killed in the latest crackdown on Chechnya’s LGBT community, Russian activists say.
The “new wave of persecution” started at the end of December, the Russian LGBT Network say in a statement on Monday.
Authorities detained an administrator of a social media group on Russia’s VKontakte, where homosexual men from the North Caucasus communicated, the network says.
Mass detentions began after authorities accessed the administrator’s contacts through his phone, according to The Associated Press.
The Russian LGBT Network says it learned of the situation in the beginning of January.
Authorities in Chechnya — a southwestern republic in Russia known for being conservative and predominantly Muslim — have denied targeting the LGBT community.
Ramzan Kadyrov, its leader, told the Interfax news agency in 2017 that gay people simply do not exist: “In Chechen society, there is no such thing as nontraditional orientation,” he said.
The Russian LGBT Network says authorities are “unwilling not only to stop the persecution, but also to acknowledge the fact of illegal detentions, tortures and killings of LGBT people in Chechnya.”
The group says it has relocated 150 people who were living in danger. Still, local police make “every effort to prevent victims from leaving the region or applying to the courts in the future,” says the group’s head, Igor Kochetkov.
“They take away documents, they [threaten] the victims with the criminal proceedings against them or their close ones, and they force them to sign empty forms,” he said.
Attacks on gay people in Chechnya aren’t new.
In 2017, Chechen police and military officials rounded up men they suspected of being gay, tortured them with electric devices and encouraged family members to engage in honor killings, according to The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
It released a report on human rights violations in Russia last month.
One witness said that police officers told relatives, “Either you kill your kid or we will do it for you.”
Women and girls have also been detained, beaten, raped and killed, the report stated.
“I was kidnapped and kept for 12 days in a basement,” a victim told NPR in 2017. His identity was not disclosed because although he was then living in Moscow, he feared for his life. He said he was interrogated, physically abused and forced to contact a person he was dating. Authorities “put a black plastic bag over my head and put a gun to my head,” he said. “They made me call the other guy and tell him to come the car. Then they kidnapped him as well.”
Other Chechens who fled told NPR last year that secret police force gay men into outing their friends. “The police electrocuted my friends, beat them, denied them food and water,” said a 25-year-old whose name was not revealed for protection.
Some members of the LGBT community have sought asylum, but as NPR’s Joanna Kakissis has reported, details on their experience aren’t easy to find: In the Netherlands, the Immigration and Naturalization Service doesn’t register the sexual orientation of people seeking asylum, making it difficult to determine how many LGBT asylum-seekers have been rejected.
Anonymous members of online groups catering to the LGBT community are urging people in the area to delete information from their phones, change their numbers and destroy their devices, Russian news site Meduza reported.
The waves of violence come years after Putin signed a “gay propaganda” measure into federal law in 2013. Human Rights Watch said it had “a deeply damaging effect on LGBT children” and “contributed to an intensification of stigma, harassment, and violence against LGBT people in Russia.”
Putin has said that being gay is not a crime. “What’s more, homosexual people can’t feel inferior here because there is no professional, career or social discrimination against them.”
RUSA LGBT, an activist group that started in 2008, announced in a Facebook message plans for a vigil in New York, near the Russian consulate. It called the events in Chechnya a genocide and accused the Russian government of “covering up these atrocities.”