Gay men are reportedly being imprisoned and tortured in Chechnya, a region in the southwestern portion of Russia, according to an investigation from Novaya Gazeta, a Russian independent newspaper.
Chechnya, a former separatist region, is headed by Razman Kadyrov, an ally of Russian President Valdimir Putin. A spokesman for Kadyrov called the report a lie.
Novaya Gazeta collaborated with the Russian LGBT Network on the investigation, one of the only nonprofits of its kind in Russia. The organization’s Svetlana Zakharova joined Worldview’s Jerome McDonnell to discuss the situation.
Jerome McDonnell: How did you first become aware of this campaign against gay men in Chechnya?
Svetlana Zakharova: It started in the end of March when our director received an email from an anonymous person … We didn’t know at the time if it was true or not, but we started a hotline just in case, and at the same time we started to investigate this information. We started to talk to people who work in this region, human rights defenders, and at some point it turned out that this information is true.
McDonnell: Explain what these stories are, because some of them involve entrapment and things of that nature.
Zakharova: People reported that they, or their relatives or friends, were kidnapped and put into a cell. Usually there were 15 to 30 people in the same cell together. There were also other people, for example drug users, but homosexual people were humiliated more. They were deprived of food or water. They were tortured by an electric current and they were heavily beaten. And also it was reported that some people were beaten to death in these prisons.
McDonnell: What is the legal status of people who are homosexual in Chechnya?
Zakharova: Chechnya is part of Russia, and in Russia there is no legislation prohibiting homosexuality. At the same point Chechnya is a very closed region. It’s a very specific region with its own traditions and norms and stigmas.
McDonnell: How do you describe the different situation in Chechnya? There has been conversation about honor killings in Chechnya. How did that happen?
Zakharova: In Chechnya homosexuality is such a big stigma. It is considered to put a shame on the whole family. The one way to put this shame away is too kill this homosexual person. We have heard stories about people given to the hands of relatives from these prisons and then no one has ever seen these people again.
McDonnell: Can you explain to people what the thinking is about homosexuality in Russia and why it seems really rigid there?
Zakharova: There is a state-sponsored propaganda. I don’t think there is something in the Russian human nature that rejects homosexuality as such. It is just the mass media, the federal mass media that is controlled by the state, portrays a very precise picture of a homosexual person. It’s a perverse person or a western agent or a person who should be cured because they are just sick. Just because of that there is such a negative attitude of people toward homosexuality. We as LGBT activists just don’t have the chance to go to the federal media and talk about ourselves as normal people who are basically the same as all other people and who deserve all the same rights.
McDonnell: Is Chechnya unique compared to other places in Russia?
Zakharova: It is. Outside of Chechnya the situation is much better. People are not being killed. The authorities are not that silent. But for people from the region, it’s not safe to stay in Russia anymore because they expect they will be hunted, and probably they are right.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness. Click play above to listen to the entire interview.