It has never been easy to be gay in Chechnya. In 1996, the president of the Chechen Republic ratified a criminal code that outlawed “anal sexual intercourse between a man and a woman or a man and a man.” Article 148, based on strict conservative rules of traditional Islamic Shari’a law, made consensual gay sex punishable by caning. Third-time offenders could be punished by stoning or beheading.
A moratorium on capital punishment in Russia went into effect in the same year as Article 148. As of today, it is still in place. No gay men have been beheaded under Chechen law.
According to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, there are simply no gays to punish in Chechnya. “We don’t have those kinds of people here. We don’t have any gays,” Kadyrov told an HBO respondent in an interview.”To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”
Chechen gay men tell a different story
Under a leader who disaffirms their existence, in a Muslim-majority society that condemns their identities, Chechen gay men keep a low profile in fear of being arrested and tortured.
The arrests began in February, when Chechen Kadyrovites (armed security forces headed by President Kadyrov) arrested a man for drug use and found gay pornography on his personal phone. The contacts of other local gay men on the man’s phone provided the avenue for the Kadyrovites to claim the first round of victims. This became the primary method for Chechen law enforcement to locate gay men in the area. Many chose to close their accounts on apps and social media in fear that their Facebook connections could make them into the next arrest victims.
In one such case, a man was lured out of his home by security forces under the guise of one of his friends. “I saw [my friend] with other people and immediately realized that it was a set-up,” he recounted. “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 … That I should rather be a terrorist than a faggot. That a dirty piece of cloth was worth more than me.”
Anonymous firsthand accounts published by the Russian LGBTQ network outline some of the atrocities being committed against gay men in Chechnya. These testimonies report beatings, food and water deprivation, psychological torture and electric shock. One man reported that guards forced plastic bags over his head until he ran out of oxygen. Another victim gave accounts of daily group beatings. His detainment group, including a young man of merely 17, was forced to lay on the ground and wait to be beat multiple times with a pipe. Many developed open wounds which were left to fester untreated.
These anonymous reports are about as close as we can get to the reality of what is happening in Chechnya. Journalists take a great risk in approaching the subject. After publishing investigative articles on the Chechen gay detention camps, journalists from Novaya Gazeta were threatened by president Kadyrov and Muslim religious officials. This promise of “vengeance” should not be taken lightly, as two journalists from the Russian independent newspaper have been assassinated in retaliation for human rights investigations in the past.
Victims of gay detention
Victims of the gay detention camps are not even safe upon returning home. Under conservative Islamic religious law, families may deem it necessary to dispose of their gay sons in a practice called “honor killing.” According to an anonymous victim, parliament chairman Magomed Daudov confronted a group of families to encourage the honor killing of their sons: “He talked to our relatives, saying that we brought disgrace to the nation and to our families. He told them that if they honour the traditions, they must kill us. And that if they did everything, they would not be punished for it.”
Violence in the name of honor extends to other groups within the Chechen LGBTQ community. Leyla, a Chechen transgender woman, sought asylum in the United States after she was stabbed at her home in Moscow. Leyla was bringing in her groceries when the attacker knifed her in the back. The attacker’s words echo the ideology of honor killings: “We are so tired of you and your shame.”
Leyla would have had to return home to Chechnya to go to court to file for the attack. She equated this possibility with certain death. After her phone number and passport were leaked online, Leyla began to receive death threats.
Leyla found in America a place where she could be respected — a place where even as a transgender Muslim immigrant, she is called “ma’am” without question. However, she admits to being discouraged at the lack of coverage from American news networks on the violence in Chechnya. Leyla isn’t wrong. A study by Media Matters revealed that from April to July, while the arrests of gay men were at their height in Chechnya, there were only three evening news reports across the six major news networks on the subject. President Trump has yet to address the issue.