The Man Behind Chechnya’s Purge of Gay Men

By Conor Tully
Correspondent, Undergraduate IR & Russian Student

On the 11th  of April, Novaya Gazeta reported that over the course of February and March more than one hundred people accused of being homosexual had been illegally detained in Chechnya. Astonished at this development, further research by the Guardian, Meduza and Radio Liberty were all nonetheless able to corroborate the story. Worse, since the breaking of the story, at least three men have now been confirmed killed. Just three days later, at a meeting of approximately 15,000 people at the central mosque in the region’s capital, Grozny, Islamic clerics allegedly incited the murder of the journalists involved.

The situation has continued to deteriorate. LGBT men have been detained and tortured into revealing the whereabouts of other members of the LGBT community. The methods of torture have included the use of electric chairs according to Tatiana Vinnichenko, the chairwoman of the Russian LGBT Network. The Chechen authorities have also used information from the mobile phones of victims to identify other gay men. VKontakte, a popular Russian social media website, has been used to trick gay men into meeting police officers. The Russian LGBT Network is currently attempting to bring victims’ cases to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the Chechen government is committing crimes against humanity. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has demanded an investigation be carried out by the Russian government.

Many cities in Russia including Moscow have a vibrant but often secret gay community. Chechnya, by contrast, is a staunchly conservative and patriarchal republic with a Muslim majority population. This cultural climate has meant that LGBT people in the region are under constant threat from homophobia and are even reluctant to accept help from LGBT organisations out of fear.

Men who have been released after being tortured are given back to their families with a simple message, “Either you kill him or we will.” In a society where having a gay family member brings extreme shame on the whole household, and so-called ‘honour killings’ take place on a regular basis, this is an inflammatory statement to make. One victim stated that upon being released a number of gay men have been murdered by their relatives.

Five days after the meeting in Grozny, the republic’s head of government, Ramzan Kadyrov, met his party leader, the Russian president Vladimir Putin, in the Kremlin. When questioned about the torture Kadyrov’s spokesman replied, “You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic.” A Kremlin official said that they had not been presented with any evidence of persecution. The Russian Human Rights Commissioner questioned the motivation behind those who had published the reports. The relationship between Kadyrov and Putin stretches back over a decade and explains the absence of any attempt by the Russian government to end the torture of gay men in the region.

Kadyrov is a former separatist rebel leader who now is a vocal supporter of Putin. In 2016 he was re-elected as head of government with 98% of the vote. His father, who led separatists in the 1994-1996 civil war and later changed sides to serve as President of Chechnya, was killed in an explosion at a military parade in 2004. Within hours of his father’s death Kadyrov appeared on state television alongside Putin. He is now one of Putin’s most important allies and has allegedly been involved in vote rigging in the president’s favour. He has promised support for the Russian campaign in Syria and two Chechen military police battalions were reported to have been sent to the country. The main street in Grozny has even been named in Putin’s honour.

He often also displays the characteristics of an authoritarian leader and has even recently attempted to form a personality cult. His Instagram account is regularly updated with videos of him demonstrating his action man-like qualities, attending political meetings dressed in military style uniform and doing Putinesque martial arts. The account has amassed over 2.7 million followers.

Kadyrov has rejuvenated Grozny but at a high price. There is a long line of examples of illegal activity by the republic’s authorities. Chechnya is governed as an autonomous region and the normal Russian authorities including the courts, police and prosecutors do not usually operate there. Some of Kadyrov’s ministers even claim to operate as if Chechnya is independent. Aspects of sharia law have been enforced, including a requirement that women wear a hijab in public, and Kadyrov supported those who attacked women for not doing so. He has also condoned collective reprisals against unapproved Islamists and supported polygamy. He filmed his own programme similar to The Apprentice to recruit a new director of development for the regime. In the programme he argued that despite there being four female candidates, women were unlikely to succeed in the role and that instead they should be housewives.

Human rights groups in the region have been violently intimidated. Free speech and freedom of the press are limited. In an article in the newspaper Izvestia Kadyrov called liberals ‘vile jackals’ and ‘enemies of the people’. The authorities used the state broadcaster Grozny TV to air a forced apology of a woman whose viral WhatsApp recording had denounced the regime. Human Rights Watch has stated that the government regularly illegally detains, disappears and abuses those who dare to express discontent as well as their families.

Putin has so far ignored the Chechen government’s crimes and human rights violations. The Russian Federation’s approach to internal opposition is markedly different from that of the Soviet Union. Putin subcontracts out violent suppression of opposition to others such as Kadyrov. As well as ensuring support for Putin in Chechnya, Kadyrov has helped quell the region’s violent independence movement. In December 2014 20,000 troops paraded through the streets of Grozny in a show of strength. The Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was murdered in 2015 by a former senior officer in Kadyrov’s forces. A day later Kadyrov was awarded a medal by Putin.

Kadyrov is key to Putin’s strategy in Chechnya. Given the history of abuses that have been carried out by the Chechen government, it would not be surprising if their efforts to forcibly remove or kill the gay men in the region continue unhampered by Moscow.

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