- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Reports are circulating that dozens of men are being held, tortured, and even killed because they’re thought to be gay in Chechnya, a republic in Russia’s North Caucasus. The spokesperson for Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic, reportedly said no gay men could be tortured, because there are no gay men in Chechnya: “Nobody can detain or harass anyone who is simply not present in the republic.” And in response to that response, Russia did not do much of anything.
Which is why, on Thursday the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) asked Russia to investigate just what is going on its southern dependency. U.N. human rights experts also asked Moscow to intervene.
“The authorities in the Russian Federation must urgently investigate the horrific reports of human rights violations against allegedly gay men in Chechnya, as well as identify, prosecute and punish any known perpetrators,” said a statement from Michael Link, head of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
The U.N. human rights experts “urge the authorities to put an end to the persecution of people perceived to be gay or bisexual in the Chechen Republic who are living in a climate of fear fuelled by homophobic speeches by local authorities,” their statement said.
It is unclear whether Russia will indeed intervene, or investigate, or do anything at all. Previously, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said the issue was not up to the Kremlin. “If any actions have been taken by the law enforcement agencies which, in the opinion of some citizens, were taken with some irregularities, these citizens can use their rights, file relevant complaints and go to court,” Peskov said.
But Russian involvement is urgently needed, argued Link of the OSCE, who highlighted the apparent “unwillingness of local authorities to investigate and prosecute the serious violations alleged to have been committed by security services.”
The situation in Chechnya is something of a perfect storm for (allegedly) getting away with torture.
There’s Chechnya itself, which has been under Kadyrov’s thumb with Putin’s blessing for a decade. Kadyrov follows his father, Akhmad, who started “Chechenization,” in which Chechnya would be a loyal part of Russia but would keep its own domestic affairs in order. More broadly, homophobia is accepted as a norm in the Caucasus.
But the issue is not just regional, or religious, or cultural. As Maxim Eristavi, an Atlantic Council fellow who has been following the situation, noted on Twitter, “Dismissing gay murders in Chechnya as ‘Muslim issue’ is wrong: Russia has many Muslim-majority regions, we’ve seen nothing like this there. Gay murder spree in Chechnya is not ‘cultural, Muslim or regional’. It’s part of longtime Kremlin-backed regime of state violence.”
It doesn’t appear that this issue was raised this week by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, or to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Tillerson did not meet with civil society leaders during his two-day visit to Russia.
However, the State Department’s acting spokesperson Mark Toner did issue a statement expressing concern last Friday. “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.”
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