On 14 January 2019, the Russian LGBT Network issued an urgent press release about a new wave of arrests of gay men and lesbians in Chechnya. According to the Network, more than 40 people had been detained and two people had already been tortured to death. A few days later, the reports were confirmed by Novaya Gazeta, based on its own research. In 2017, Elena Milashina, a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, carried out extensive investigations locally and spoke with many of the people affected, uncovering evidence of widespread abuse of sexual minorities in Chechnya, which she then made public. As she sees it, this latest wave is different in that it does not appear to have been orchestrated by the authorities but was instigated by local figures. Last time, more than 100 people were detained and tortured in secret camps because of their alleged or actual sexual orientation or gender identity, resulting in several deaths. The LGBT Network says that it has been contacted by more than 150 affected persons since April 2017 and has assisted 130 people to leave the region; many have applied for asylum in Europe or North America.
In April 2017, the reports from Chechnya sparked an international wave of solidarity. Under pressure from the international community, local leaders moderated their approach, at least for a time. To date, however, no criminal proceedings have been initiated, and although an investigation involving the judicial authorities was announced by human rights ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova, these inquiries have yet to produce any result. Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov and other Chechen spokespersons have repeatedly denied the existence of “sodomites” in Chechnya and ordered people to take drastic measures against LGBTI* members of their own families in order to “purify Chechen blood”.
LGBTI* discrimination in Russia
Discrimination and persecution against LGBTI* people across Russia have massively increased since 2011. Certain socio-cultural norms – traditional gender roles and family values, combined with a toxic ideal of masculinity – have been strengthened in recent years by a political strategy aimed at the propagation of “traditional moral values”. Meanwhile, organisations dedicated to defending human rights and raising awareness are encountering increasingly formidable administrative obstacles. A law banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” prohibits the provision of any form of impartial information about homosexuality and makes LGBTI* persons invisible within society. Every-day discrimination in the workplace and in schools, arbitrary treatment by the police, bans on demonstrations, violence against LGBTI* people and suicide are rising sharply across Russia. There are no legal mechanisms in place to protect the LGBTI* community. As a consequence, violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity are viewed as minor offences involving private individuals. In any case, most incidents of this kind go unreported due to victims’ fears that they may be subjected to further abuse, this time at the hands of the police.
The major international attention that Russia’s treatment of LGBTI* people received in 2012 and 2013 did not lead to any fundamental change of policy, although it did prompt the authorities to exercise a degree of caution. However, the small number of permitted public actions against LGBTI* discrimination and the lack of coordinated violence should not obscure the fact that the mood within society still does not allow for any kind of open discourse about homosexuality. Among those affected, adolescents and families with children, in particular, are confronted with prejudice on a massive scale and are at risk from systematic discrimination in their daily lives.
Human rights violations in Chechnya
In the Russian republic of Chechnya, the already precarious situation of LGBTI* people is several orders of magnitude worse. Although Chechnya is formally a “federal subject” of the Russian Federation, which means that Russian laws and legal standards apply, a parallel system has evolved here over recent decades and is tolerated by the Russian government. One element of these parallel structures is a total disregard for human rights; another is the replacement of legal norms with traditional notions of honour and a patriarchal hierarchy. For decades, international human rights organisations have criticised the grave human rights violations committed against dissidents. They include rigged trials, torture, forced confessions and honour killings. In January 2018, the arrest of Oyub Titiev, head of the Russian human rights organisation Memorial in Grozny, attracted international attention.
The persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity bears witness to the toxic mix of legal instability and traditional values in Chechnya. People who are arrested or persecuted for their alleged homosexuality also lose the protection of their families, who will stop at nothing, including murder, to eliminate a gay family member. This massive social stigmatisation limits their social activities to Internet groups, but these too are systematically misused as a vehicle for denunciations and persecution.
International bodies such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe have made multiple appeals to Russia to honour its multilateral commitments and end the human rights violations. In November 2018, due to the lack of reaction from Russia, the OSCE finally invoked the Moscow Mechanism of the human dimension, triggering an investigation – with or without Moscow’s consent – into the alleged targeted persecution of LGBTI* people, among other things. The report has been available since early 2019 and corroborates these very serious allegations. The new wave of persecutions is possibly a reaction to the report and may well be intended to deter other victims from speaking out.
Neither the Russian nor the Chechen government assisted with the investigations; on the contrary, the experts involved were banned from entering the country. Russian human rights activists are pessimistic about the likely impact of the report on Russian and Chechen justice. They say that at best, inquiries of this kind merely prevent the worst abuses and send a message that the international community is keeping a close eye on the situation. They believe it is unrealistic to expect robust protection for victims or effective punishment of the perpetrators. In Russia, national law takes precedence over international law – and the government is particularly protective of Chechnya. On 17 January 2019, the Russian Duma voted against sending a delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. It is unclear whether Russia will remain a member of this institution and honour its associated obligations.
Invisible means defenceless
Many of those affected are attempting to escape the hopeless situation by fleeing Chechnya. Even though the situation of Chechens who are “different” is well-documented, they face multiple forms of discrimination within the German asylum system. This includes a general perception that Chechen refugees are dangerous Islamists, a view which increases the burden of proof on these often multiply traumatised persons. They also face ongoing discrimination from other Chechen refugees. For years, refugee organisations have been calling for more effective protection of LGBTI* people in the asylum process, including LGBTI*-sensitive interpreting of all interviews, training for refugee centre staff, and protected spaces and special accommodation for particularly at-risk groups. Without these and other targeted measures, LGBTI* refugees from Chechnya will remain as invisible and defenceless as they were in their own country.
Regina Elsner is a theologian and researcher at ZOiS. Her current research project deals with the socioethical discourse of the Russian Orthodox Church between theological sovereignty and political adaptation.