Time to stand with LGBT Chechens

The international community has a moral responsibility to make clear that the detention, arrest, torture and murder of LGBT people in Chechnya is unacceptable, argues Waheed Alli

This week has been a sobering reminder there are still huge global challenges for LGBT people with the shocking reports that have emerged from the media and human rights groups about the brutal persecution of gay men in Chechnya.

Even for the standards of the Russian Federation the news is gruesome. Stories started appearing in the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta that authorities in the Northern Caucuses had been detaining dozens of men in a secret prison ‘in connection with their nontraditional sexual orientation, or suspicion of such.’

The paper wrote that ‘in Chechnya, the command was given for a “prophylactic sweep” and it went as far as real murders,’ with recent crackdowns having seen more than 100 men arrested and at least three killed.

Abuses on those detained allegedly included being taken outside and beaten several times a day, having their hands electrocuted and being forced to sit on bottles.

Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the Russian LGBT Network have all described these reports as credible and say that their own sources have confirmed the allegations.

Meanwhile, the Chechen authorities have refused to stop the arrests, with one government spokesman denying that there are even LGBT people in Chechnya at all, saying, ‘you cannot arrest and repress those who simply aren’t in the republic.’

The Russian government likewise has also refused to intervene, telling the victims to ‘file official complaints and go to court,’ which will ring hollow given the nature of the rule of law in such cases, especially when so-called ‘honour killings’ are common place in the Northern Caucuses.

The Chechen and Russian governments must therefore do three things. First, explain and account for those who have been detained with details of their status and health. Second, pledge that such illegal detentions will not be tolerated and these existing cases will be investigated. And third, that those who have been targeted will be given safe transport out of the region to safety.

The Russian LGBT Network reports that they have received numerous requests for help in the last few weeks, and have established emergency hotlines for those who are facing threats, hoping to move them to safety.

Svetlana Zakharova, from the network, said: ‘Gay people have been detained and rounded up and we are working to evacuate people from the camps and some have now left the region.

‘Those who have escaped said they are detained in the same room and people are kept altogether, around 30 or 40. They are tortured with electric currents and heavily beaten, sometimes to death.’

With so much government capacity being consumed by the Brexit negotiations, it is vital that the United Kingdom’s advocacy on human rights is not seen as an optional extra that can be dropped if things get a bit busy or if trade priorities are deemed more important.

That is why I welcome the Foreign Office’s holding statement from Baroness Anelay that they are looking into these reports but we need to know more. I hope ministers will be able to give an oral statement when parliament returns next week to update us on what the UK government’s assessment of the situation is and what action will be taken against both Russian and Chechen leadership.

Tonight LGBT activists and their allies will protest at the Russian embassy in London to try and throw a spotlight on these atrocities in Chechnya. I hope US secretary of state Rex Tillerson is doing so while in Moscow today and I call on the UK government to mobilise the international community to say that such detentions, arrests, torture and murders are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

Our levels of optimism in the Russian government’s interest in taking action may well be low but that does not mean we should be silent on the suffering in Chechnya. In fact, it means there is a greater responsibility on us all to shine a light on such incidents.

Just as it took courageous leadership to start our journey to freedom fifty years ago, so we should show such leadership now in support of oppressed LGBT people globally, starting now with this urgent crisis in Chechnya.

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Waheed Alli is a Labour peer and campaigner on LGBT issues.

You can find out more from the Russian LGBT Network at @rulgbtnet

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