Svetlana Zakharova of the Russian LGBT Network talks about the worsening situation for gay men Chechnya, and what we in Ireland can do to help.
“The most frightening thing isn’t that it’s about homosexual people. The most frightening thing is that there are people who are killed and tortured for nothing and there is no official response.” So says Svetlana Zakharova on a late-evening phone call from Russia. She is, of course, talking about the situation in the Russian republic of Chechnya, where gay men are being rounded up, tortured, interrogated, and even murdered, by the state.
Zakharova works for the Russian LGBT Network, which is currently organising evacuations of approximately 40 vulnerable men from Chechnya, but she can’t talk about any of the details or individuals involved.
“We have strict security protocols,” she says. “Only three people in the organisation have all the information about who has been evacuated. We want to get them out of Chechnya first, and then Russia, but we don’t talk about the final destination for any of the evacuees.”
“We don’t even know if this is the first time.”
While reports of the Chechnya pogrom only surfaced in April, Zakharova says it may not be the first purge of its kind in the republic.
“It was always a very homophobic region, and we have already evacuated some people from there,” she says. “But we have never head of a situation like this before, such a massive campaign against LGBT people anywhere in Russia. It’s absolutely unprecedented and unbelievable, and we don’t know why they started to do it right now. We don’t even know if this is the first time. It’s a really closed country and it’s really rare that any information comes out of Chechnya.”
After the reports surfaced in the Russian independent newspaper, Novaya Gazeta about what the global media began to call ‘concentration camps’ for gay people, the secretive Chechen authorities suddenly came under scrutiny.
“The authorities are quite angry about the world focus on Chechnya now,” Zakharova says. “They still refuse even the existence of homosexual people.”
Working to evacuate persecuted gay men from Chechnya comes with its own set of difficulties in Russia, not least because of the federal law “for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values”, known widely as the gay propaganda law, which is used to suppress LGBT groups and individuals. But the Russian LGBT Network currently is going about its work unhindered.
“Every LGBT group in Russia is under threat, but we are bit surprised by the fact that actually we don’t have that many threats,” says Zakharova. “It’s public information that the Network is providing support to Chechen gay men.”
“There is no coverage of this in the mass Russian media.”
Although a spokesman for Vladimir Putin said last month that the Russian president had no reason to doubt the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov’s, assurances that there is no persecution of gays in his republic, Zakharova believes a federal investigation is underway.
“We believe that due to international pressure the government has begun an investigation. However they never stated it publically. So, it’s not transparent, what’s going on.”
Meanwhile, despite the global coverage, the people of Russia know little or nothing of the plight of their Chechnan neighbours.
“There is no coverage of this in the mass Russian media, which is state controlled,” says Zakharova. “It is impossible for LGBT activists to go on there and talk about issues we face. We have some independent media but they’re not that powerful and their coverage isn’t so wide.”
While LGBT activists across Europe and America have organised protests and raised funds to help the evacuation of gay men from Chechnya, Zakharova says that more needs to be done.
“The investigation was started because of international pressure and the involvement of many people and organisations, and we are very grateful for that,” she says, “but we still want people to protest and to show that all these killings and this torture is not forgotten.
“Every citizen can write a request to their local Minister for Foreign affairs and ask what is being done about the mass torture and murder of gay men in Chechnya. If there are many such requests, it will influence the government and they will ask the Russian authorities about it. The Russian authorities will have to reply, and they’ll have to act.”
Having worked for the Network for three years, Zakharova has witnessed the machine of Russian LGBT oppression first-hand on a daily basis. “I face stories every day of people who are beaten or fired, or incriminated by the police,” she says. “In general the environment is very unfriendly, but compared to Chechnya it’s not that bad being LGBT in Russia.
“Yes, Russia is a homophobic country and the level of discrimination and violence is quite hard, but still there are not mass killings of people because of their sexuality.”
You can write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan TD, at firstname.lastname@example.org to ask what the Irish government is doing about the mass kidnapping, torture, and murder of gay men in Chechnya.
Dear Minister Flanagan,
I am writing to express my deep concern about the situation faced by gay men in the Russian Republic of Chechnya.
There are reports of gay men being rounded up and kept in six prisons in the country, with prisoners being beaten with polypropylene tubes and tortured with electricity to give up the names of other gay men. It has also been reported that some men have been beaten to death.
The Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has denied this ongoing atrocity, saying it couldn’t happen because there are no gay men in Chechnya.
I would like to know what the Irish government is doing to intervene for the safety and rescue of LGBT people in Chechnya, and what communication there has been from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs with Russia about the continuing situation. If there has been no communication, I urge you to intervene with the Russian authorities.
To send an email containing this letter, click here.