About two weeks ago, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on a campaign apparently underway in Chechnya to round up men suspected of homosexuality. According to the newspaper, more than 100 gay men were arrested and at least three killed, prompting characterizations that they were being detained in “concentration camps.” This week, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley became the highest ranking U.S. official to comment on the matter.
“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,” Haley said in a statement. “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.”
Last week, Acting State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said that the U.S. is “increasingly concerned about the situation,” but neither Secretary of State Rex Tillerson nor President Donald Trump have publicly commented. Former Vice President Joe Biden condemned the arrests Friday, describing himself as “disgusted and appalled” by the reports.
The Guardian has corroborated the mistreatment from gay men who have escaped Chechnya. They described being harassed by their families, outed by lovers who were already working with the police, and blackmailed by public officials. Human Rights Watch has received numerous reports of harassment from within Chechnya that are consistent with Novaya Gayetza’s reporting. The Russian LGBT Network also confirmed to the Washington Blade that “there is kind of a prison next to one Chechen city where homosexual men are detained.” Nevertheless, details regarding what is actually taking place remain elusive, in part because of how Chechen authorities have been stonewalling.
After the reports first emerged, Alvi Karimov, a spokesman for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrovm dismissed them by suggesting that gay people simply don’t exist in the country. “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” he said at the time. “If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them since their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.” At the very least, anti-gay sentiment is certainly a reality in the country.
On Sunday, Kadyrov, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, claimed that the reports of the roundups were actually a “massive information attack” on the country itself. He said that, “using the most unworthy methods, reality is distorted, attempts are being made to blacken our society, lifestyle, traditions, and customs.”
Putin’s administration has likewise claimed to have no knowledge confirming the detainments. Human Rights Watch has criticized the Kremlin for its weak response to the news out of Chechnya, as well as its own tolerance for anti-LGBT violence and persecution in Russia.
Nevertheless, the reports have triggered a backlash. Elena Milashina, the Novaya Gazeta reporter who first broke the story, has fled her home in Moscow because of threats that both she and the newspaper have received. She told the Washington Post this weekend that some 15,000 people gathered in the main mosque in Chechnya and “announced a jihad against the entire staff.” The outlet Crime Russia seems to confirm this, detailing a resolution that Chechen clergy leaders and public figures adopted that declares that any information about “cleansing” gays in Chechnya should be considered “absolute lies and slander.” The resolution also encourages violence as a response. Because of ongoing safety concerns, Milashina plans to leave Russia entirely so that she can continue her reporting somewhere she feels less vulnerable to the threats.
According to Haley’s statement, on Tuesday the U.S. is leading a “first-ever meeting on human rights in international conflicts in the UN Security Council.” This meeting, she said, will “underscore our commitment to addressing human rights abuses wherever they threaten international peace and security.”