Yesterday, April 26, Elena Milashina, the Russian journalist who first revealed Chechnya’s systematic torture of gay men in the publication Novaya Gazeta, went into hiding following death threats. It is believed that the threats were partly motivated by a widely publicized sermon in which 15,000 people were present at a Chechen mosque where Muslim clerics called for “retribution” against her and other journalists, citing the news of the gay torture camps as “women’s gossip” and lies. Following the event, Novaya Gazeta released a statement calling the sermon “an incitement to massacre journalists.” After this, the paper received two envelopes of mysterious white power. As of yet, it is unknown what the powder is, but, in a society where threats to journalists are the norm, the act can not be taken lately. Since 2000 alone, at least six Novaya Gazeta staff members have been killed by members of organized crime groups.
Earlier this month, Milashina and Novaya Gazeta broke the news that police in the Russian republic of Chechnya were rounding up and arresting gay men and subjecting them to torture in “camps.” The disturbing events happened after GayRussia, a Moscow-based activist group, applied for permits to have gay pride parades and demonstrations in the Caucasus region. Religious groups then reacted with counter protests and authorities in Chechnya soon began hunting down gay men. Victims who escaped the camps have told newspapers that Chechen secret security agents said that they were being a subject to a mass “prophylactic sweep.”
Chechen society is extremely homophobic. Same-sex orientation is highly taboo in the mostly Muslim republic and surrounding areas of southern Russia. When gay men meet in public they often do not use their real names for fear of being persecuted. Many of the victims of the camps were entrapped by former friends and acquaintances who were probably operating under fear of or as a result of being tortured. One escapee, Maksim, said that he was arrested after having an online conversation with an old friend who suggested that they meet. When Maksim showed up his friend was no where to be found. Instead he was met by agents who beat him, strapped him in a chair and electrocuted him. For two weeks he was subject to interrogation and torture, authorities asked him “Who else do you know?”
More than one-hundred gay men have been arrested and sent to the camp. Reports indicate that at least three men have been killed although it is suspected that there have been more deaths. Novaya Gazeta stated that one man was killed while being tortured at the camp. Two others were released and their sexuality was exposed to relatives who then murdered them as a form of “honor killing.” Despite this, the Kremlin refuses to acknowledge the existence of the camps. On April 14, Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s chief spokesman, told reporters that there is “no credible information about the reported detentions, torture, and murders.” Chechen regional leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, is vehemently homophobic. His spokesperson has outrightly denied reports of the torture camps by implying that there are no gay people in Chechnya. He stated, “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic.” Adding, “If there were such people in Chechnya, law enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.” Putin recently was photographed meeting with Kadyrov, seemingly in a show of support for the brutal ruler.
Activists who are part of the Russian LGBT Network have created an underground network to help gay men flee from Chechnya. You can show your solidarity for the Chechen gay community by donating to the organization, downloading and sending this open letter oil companies who tout LGBT rights but have holdings in Russia, signing this Amnesty International petition, and tagging Ramzan Kadyrov in Instagram photos condemning the torture camps (he has a bizarrely active account).
-Jasmine Williams for The Untitled Magazine