What is being described as a "new wave of persecution" was made public on Monday, when the Russian LGBT Network, a non-governmental LGBTQ+ rights organization released a new report indicating at least two deaths and 40 detained LGBTQ+ Chechens (or those they believe to be) since December of last year. Amnesty International is calling the claims "credible" despite silence from Russian leadership.
Igor Kochetkov, the activist lead of the organization writes that there could be even more victims, but that these numbers were thus far confirmed. He notes that victims of the torture being enacted by law enforcement officers include both men and women. "The local police makes every effort to prevent victims from leaving the region or applying to the courts in the future," Kochetkov writes. "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."
"The news that had been broken about another round of gay purges in Chechnya yesterday, unfortunately, was not a surprise for me," Lyosha Gorshkov, co-president of RUSA LGBT, a Russian-speaking American LGBT Group, told Out. "We have known along the way, that purges did not stop in 2017 and it's been ongoing ever since. Although the focus of the international and media community has been shifted away while the world should have kept [their] eyes open." Gorshkov adds that she worries the fatalities might have already gone above 100.
As noted by the Russian LGBT network, the government there remains unwilling to acknowledge the persecution, much less to stop it. In April 2017, when reports first surfaced worldwide of what was and is being called a "gay purge," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that they "do not have any reliable information about any problems in this area," later adding that "these are some phantom complaints." (Chechnya, a Republic of Russia, is influenced by the overt anti-LGBTQ+ laws in its ruling country.)
That day then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley issued a statement: "We continue to be disturbed by reports of kidnapping, torture, and murder of people in Chechnya based on their sexual orientation and those persecuted by association. If true, this violation of human rights cannot be ignored - Chechen authorities must immediately investigate these allegations, hold anyone involved accountable, and take steps to prevent future abuses."
Former Vice President Joe Biden condemned the attacks at the time, saying he was "disgusted and appalled," and calling on the Trump administration to take action. (As of publication, they have made no publicly known effort.) Later in July of that same year, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov denied our existence, proclaiming in an interview with HBO reporter David Scott for Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, "We don't have any gays. If there are any, take them to Canada."
Which leads us to today, almost two years laters later, where more questions remain than answers. Even in December, after the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) pressured Russia to open an inquiry into the damning evidence, it remained unwilling.
"As a queer person and as Jew I am used to asking the question "how is it possible" in the face of egregious human rights violations," Adam Eli, writer and founder of activist group Voices4, told Out. "Today we have a very clear answer. Igor Kochetkov explains that 'the reason this is being repeated is impunity... the Russian authorities didn't open a criminal case, and [the Chechen government] felt this impunity.' This purge is a direct result of international bodies failing to hold Russia accountable."
"I also keep communication with queer individuals from Chechnya living in Europe or in the U.S., and they are always grateful if we hold vigils, protests, or gatherings not forgetting about them," Gorshkov adds.
To that end, Eli encourages anyone in the New York area to come out on Sunday, January 20, to join members of Voices 4 outside of the Russian consulate for a vigil honoring the lives lost and those being persecuted. "We gather to show the suffering queers in Chechnya that they are not alone, they are not forgotten," said Eli. "We gather to show the Russian and Chechen government that the world knows and they cannot act with impunity."