An emotional new video from the American advocacy group Human Rights First gives voice to the harrowing stories of crimes against gay men in the Russian republic of Chechnya.
The accounts of state-sponsored violence there have appalled world leaders: gay men arrested and taken to secret detention centers where they are tortured until their families pay police bribes. Some men have reportedly died.
Chechen officials deny the reports, one saying gay people “simply do not exist in the republic” and that if they did “their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”
Reports have now surfaced of plans to eliminate the gay community in the predominately Muslim republic by the start of Ramadan next month, members of Britain’s Parliament were told last week, according to the Daily Mail.
The United Nations, international groups and many Western governments have condemned the reports of persecution and have called on Russia to do the same, and to investigate. It has refused to.
The new PSA, called “#EyesOnChechnya,” features Russian gays who have found harbor in the United States reading the personal accounts of gays and bisexuals who suffered brutality in Chechnya.
“They stripped me naked. One filmed me on his cell phone,” says one man describing a victim’s experience. “Three of them beat me up. They kicked me, broke my jaw.”
The stories from those lucky enough to have survived and escaped “are harrowing,” Shawn Gaylord, counsel for Human Rights First advocacy, told Huff Post.
“We felt that by sharing them, we could put this nightmare in perspective for the many people that have only read about it in a newspaper. The world needs to act.”
Moscow has no reason to believe the reports are true, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said this week, adding that Moscow is concerned about “any human rights violations.”
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who met with Russian president Vladimir Putin last week, denies that gay men are being rounded up and murdered there.
The Kremlin believes Kadyrov’s denials because no one has publicly come forward as a victim, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday.
“We have no reason not to trust the head of the republic until there are actual complaints in this regard, not abstract, anonymous, but actual complaints,” Peskov said.
But it’s not likely that victims would publicly identify themselves for fear of retribution to their families and because homophobia is so deep-seated in the area, human rights activists insist.
Many LGBTQ people live in the shadows in Chechnya, where same-sex relationships are forbidden and honor killings are not only accepted practice but often not prosecuted.
“If my family knew that I was gay, they would have killed me long ago,” one man told NBC News. “The family itself would kill me. Being openly gay is impossible for us.”
The Kremlin-backed Kadyrov, described as a key Putin ally, has long been accused of human rights violations, but gay people in the region had never been targeted on such a wide scale, according to the Associated Press.
“In recent years, Kadyrov spoke in favour of honour killings and polygamy, virtually banned the sale of alcohol in Chechnya, and enforced a compulsory Muslim dress code on Chechen women,” Al Jazeera reported in 2015. “Those who ignored the policy were publicly shamed, abused, and shot at with paintball guns.
“Rights groups say Kadyrov’s paramilitary forces terrorize, abduct, and kill innocent civilians claiming they were Islamic rebels, and almost a dozen of his political enemies and critics, including two women, have been gunned down since his ascension to power in the mid-2000s.
“Over the years, Kadyrov has denied accusations that he ordered the killing of any of his critics.”
The alleged targeting of gays was exposed in early April by the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
The paper reported that at least 100 men had been arrested and three murdered in a roundup of men suspected of homosexuality, findings corroborated by Human Rights Watch. More deaths are suspected but have not been confirmed.
Two TV reporters vanished first, then a waiter turned up missing, the AP reported. In one week’s time men ranging in age from 16 to 50 disappeared from the streets of Chechnya.
The men were detained “in connection with their nontraditional sexual orientation, or suspicion of such,” the Russian newspaper reported, citing Russian federal law enforcement officials who in turn blamed local authorities.
After the story made international headlines Chechen religious and political leaders publicly denounced the reports and called for vengeance.
The journalists who broke the story reportedly received death threats; one fled the country.
The newspaper reported that the sweep began after a Moscow-based gay rights group applied for permits to hold gay pride parades in four cities in the predominately Muslim North Caucasus region of Russia, where Chechnya is located. The group, though, did not ask for a permit in Chechnya.
The newspaper initially reported that two jails were holding suspected homosexuals but later said four prisons were involved.
“The arrested men are subjected to physical and verbal abuse, torture including with electric shocks, beatings, insults, and humiliations,” U.N. experts said earlier this month.
“They are forced to give contact details of other gay people and threatened with having their sexual orientation disclosed to their family and community — a move which could put them at risk of ‘honor killings.’”
Several survivors have shared their stories with national and international news outlets, but always anonymously. Using an underground network, Russian activists have gotten several victims out of Chechnya.
Reports shared with Britain’s Parliament this week raised the tension. British authorities have been told that Kadyrov threatened to eliminate the region’s homosexual community by the end of May, coinciding with the start of Ramadan.
The British Foreign Office said the threat had been made in Russian media, according to the Daily Mail.
“The actions in these reports are utterly barbaric,” Sir Alan Duncan told his fellow Parliament members last week. “One of the most disgusting things I have seen is a Chechen security source stating that these arrests are part of what he called a preventative clean-up.
“Human rights groups report that these anti-gay campaigns and killings are orchestrated by the head of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. He has carried out other violent campaigns in the past and this time he is directing his efforts at the LGBT community.
“Sources have said that he wants the community eliminated by the start of Ramadan. Such comments, attitudes and actions are absolutely beyond contemptible.”