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Chechnya has resumed 'torture and humiliation' of gay men, rights group says

Human Rights Watch reports that the men were starved and beaten while in detention.
Image: LGBT rights protest outside the Russian Embassy in Central London
Campaigners hold a protest concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights in Chechnya, outside the Russian Embassy in Central London on June 2, 2017. The protest is part of a worldwide day of protest to highlight the rights of LGBTQ people in the Chechnya region of Russia.Will Oliver / EPA file

Almost two years after the widely reported purge of gay and bisexual men in Chechnya, the semiautonomous Russian region has resumed the detention and torture of men suspected of homosexuality, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

Rachel Denber, deputy director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia division, said her organization interviewed four men who claimed they were detained, kicked, beaten and shocked with electricity for between three and 20 days earlier this year at the Grozny Internal Affairs Department compound in Chechnya's capital, Grozny. The detained men told HRW that the police seized their cellphones and forced them to identify other gay men.

While in detention, detainees were starved and given “only limited access to water,” HRW wrote in a report published Wednesday. Gay detainees allegedly had their hair and beards shaved off to identify them and were forced to clean the facilities as “women’s work.” The detainees reported that while locked up in cells with dozens of other men, they met others who were already there because they are gay, according to HRW. Local activists told the organization that the total number detained between December and April was at least 23 men.

The 2017 gay purge was reportedly directed by top Chechen authorities, but HRW said the latest roundup of men appears to be an operation by local police who “felt at liberty to hold people in unlawful, incommunicado detention, and to humiliate and torture them for days because of their presumed sexual orientation.”

“We don’t have any indication that it was connected to top Chechen officials,” HRW stated in its report.

“There wasn’t anything remotely resembling an effective investigation into the anti-gay purge of 2017, when Chechen police rounded up and tortured dozens of men they suspected of being gay,” Denber said in a statement. “Impunity for the 2017 anti-gay purge has sanctioned a new wave of torture and humiliation in Chechnya.”

However, in an interview with NBC News, Denber explained that “what’s different about Chechnya is it’s ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov, who runs Chechnya like his own fiefdom, who tolerates no criticism and nonconformity, and is at total liberty to dictate how Chechen norms will be imposed and enforced in Chechen society, and no one challenges that.”

“There seems to be an unwritten contract between the Kremlin and Kadyrov,” Denber explained, that Kadyrov “keep the place stable, keep Islamist insurgency quiet — as long as he does that, he can pretty much do everything he wants. He has carte blanche.”

After initial reports of the gay purge, the U.S. Senate in 2017 said in a resolution that it “condemns the violence and persecution in Chechnya and calls on Chechen officials to immediately cease the abduction, detention, and torture of individuals on the basis of their actual or suspected sexual orientation, and hold accountable all those involved in perpetrating such abuses.” Then-State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters that the department raised the issue “at the highest levels” of the Russian government.

Last May, the Russian justice ministry said it investigated claims of LGBTQ torture in Chechnya and reported that not only did it find no abuse against LGBTQ people, but also that no LGBTQ people were found at all. That news release from Russia’s semiofficial news agency Interfax parroted Kadyrov’s claim that the abuse was invented by LGBTQ activists in order to win grants.

In a timeline posted to its website, the Russian LGBT Network said that since the Chechen gay purge was first reported in April 2017 by Novaya Gazeta, a Russian newspaper, more than 150 LGBTQ people have left Chechnya and more than a dozen are currently under the protection of the network itself.