On Chechnya, Silence Is Complicity

Published on August 9, 2017 by The Advocate

On July 31, nearly four months after the news first broke about the atrocities being committed against LGBTQ people in the Russian republic of Chechnya, the Russian LGBT Network published a gruesome report illustrating the horrific persecution of gay and bisexual men there. The network has been working closely with survivors of Chechnya’s antigay purge and has shared some of their stories of torture and beatings at the hands of the Chechen authorities.

From “A.B.”:

My friend … offered to come over. When he arrived … I saw him with other people and immediately realized that it was a set-up. The people who were with him were wearing camouflage uniforms. They said that they were taking me away. They started beating me up and saying humiliating things. They said that I’m not a man, just some creature, that I am nothing. That I should rather be a terrorist than a faggot. That a dirty piece of cloth was worth more than me.

Another, from “I.J.”:

They threw me to the floor and beat me. They beat my chest and my face with their feet, and they hit my head against the floor. One of them said: “Do not beat him until the shock stage, at that point he will stop feeling pain. We don’t need that.” They addressed me with female pronouns and demanded that I tell them the names of other gay people I knew. They threatened to kill me if I didn’t.

And another, from “E.F.”:

Every day, I was transported to the premises for torture. It was situated underground. I was beaten there every day. <…> It was impossible to sleep there; you could be captured anytime and thrown into another place. There were no windows, nothing. It was always as dark as night. <…> They put plastic bags on my head, and when I was running out of oxygen, they tore the bag away and hit my legs at the same time. <…> We had no water inside. The only water we could drink was when we were going out of the cells.

Since this past winter, the Chechen government has launched a sustained, widespread, and vicious attack on its LGBTQ citizens. Some leaders there promised to erase Chechen gay people before Ramadan while others denied it was happening, even denying the very existence of LGBTQ people there. Lesbians have also come under attack from their families and, unlike gay men, they have no legal avenue for fleeing Chechnya without a husband or written permission from their families.

The Trump-Pence White House has remained unconscionably silent about all this despite reports of this mounting human rights crisis. While a few administration officials have spoken up and the House of Representatives voted to condemn the Chechen atrocities, neither the president, the vice president. nor the secretary of State has issued even a single statement mentioning it, nor is there any reason to believe they have raised it in any bilateral meetings.

The one brief glimmer of hope had been the possibility of a serious Russian investigation into the purge. In late May, Russian authorities announced that Igor Sobol would lead an investigation. He was described as “meticulous,” “fearless,” and “reputable,” and there were even reports emerging that the Chechen government had “crossed a red line” in its relationship with Moscow. One report stated that Chechen officials were in “panic mode” over the investigation and that several had expressed “newfound tolerance” for the LGBTQ community there, with one police chief even suggesting he’d permit a gay pride parade in Grozny.

Sadly, that ember was quickly extinguished in early July, when Novaya Gazeta, which had been the first to break the story, reported that Sobol had been removed from the case. And in its new report, the Russian LGBT Network concluded that “the investigative actions were just a formality.” In fact, it alleged that Chechen authorities “receive assistance from Russian law enforcement agencies in various regions” to help them drag victims back to Chechnya for more abuse.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson admitted before Congress that he hadn’t raised the issue with his Russian counterparts and that it was still on a “pending list.” This, of course, is no surprise, since Tillerson has already said human rights are an “obstacle” to U.S. interests and has ordered his department to write a new mission statement, which removes any reference to democracy promotion abroad.

After four months, the White House’s silence on Chechnya is nothing less than complicity. The whole world is watching as it fails this early test of human rights and dignity. This administration will apparently turn a blind eye while autocrats and dictators torture and kill LGBTQ people, ethnic minorities, and other vulnerable groups, just as long as they don’t harm a narrowly defined set of U.S. interests. For shame.

It’s crucial that we continue to hold the Trump administration accountable for its failure to speak out. The eyes of the world are watching, and our president and his administration must begin to lead by speaking out against these human rights abuses.

TY COBB is the director of HRC Global.