LGBT concentration camps reported in Chechnya
by Heather Cassell
Two gay men who apparently escaped from concentration-style prisons in Chechnya, where hundreds of men accused of being gay have been detained, tortured, or killed, are speaking out about their experience.
Last week news of mass arrests by Chechen government officials exploded in headlines around the world and human rights officials confirmed the horrifying media reports. Since then, a couple of former detainees are speaking out to human rights groups and the media.
Novaya Gazeta reporters Elena Milashina and Irinia Gordiyenko, who broke the news, said that the Chechen authorities' goal was "the complete cleansing of Chechnya from men of non-traditional sexual orientation," either by death or being forced to leave the republic, according to UpNorth, an English-language news site serving the Nordic and Baltic Sea region.
This is the first time since World War II that prison camps have been established where LGBTs have been one of the targeted communities, noted some media outlets.
Chechnya is an autonomous, conservative Muslim-majority, and highly homophobic region of Russia led by Ramzan Kadyrov, who's a former member of the Chechen independence movement and is backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin signed the so-called anti-homosexuality propaganda act in 2013, which inspired copycat laws in other former Soviet and anti-LGBT countries.
Kadyrov and officials of his government denied the existence of LGBT people in Chechnya and stated gay people would be killed by their families if discovered. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told ABC News that officials were unsure "to what extent the information was true," adding that it wasn't the Kremlin's role to investigate.
Gay escapees from the region, who didn't want to be identified because of safety concerns, told reporters that there are at least two secret prisons in Argun and Tsotsi-Yurt Village where gay men and drug addicts are being held.
The roundup of individuals perceived to be a "problem" started in December 2016, the men told Svoboda Ratio Station, reported Crime Russia.
The Argun prison is apparently located in a former military commandant's office, reported the media outlet.
The two men said that the arrests happened in two waves; one in December and the second started in February of this year. Authorities seized the men's phones, where they found names of other men and tortured the men for names of other men.
Authorities rounded up the men in their homes, workplaces, and in online and social media stings, they said.
It is unclear how many men may have actually been killed.
Last week there were reports that at least three men were killed during detainment, but experts at OutRight International suggested that as many as 20 men might have been killed.
The arrests and detainment are another level of harassment of alleged gay men who have purportedly been blackmailed by authorities for years, according to media reports.
Springing into action
The Russian LGBT Network, one of Russia's leading LGBT organizations based in St. Petersburg, immediately responded to the crisis by setting up a system to assist queer Russians. Last year, the organization helped one man from the region safely relocate, reported Radio Free Europe. However, this is the largest exodus of gay people from the region that the organization has attempted to aid, reported several human rights organizations.
"We have never before encountered information anywhere in Russia that hundreds of people have been detained, tortured, and even killed," said Svetlana Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian LGBT Network. "I think this is an unprecedented case."
The organization has received more than 30 letters from people who were detained during the first two waves of arrests, said Tatiana Vinnichenko, chairperson of the Russian LGBT Network.
Human rights experts speculate that the sudden mass arrest was sparked by locals angered by LGBT activists for taking an anti-gay case to the European Court of Human Rights. Government officials denied a request to host a pride event in the Chechen capital city of Grozny, according to media reports.
Diplomats from the European Union, German Federal Foreign Office, United Kingdom, and the United States, along with international LGBT organizations, called for officials of the Russian government to investigate the allegations of LGBT Russians being detained in internment camps in Chechnya.
"We are deeply disturbed by recent public statements by Chechen authorities that condone and incite violence against LGBTI persons," said Mark C. Toner, acting spokesman at the State Department, in an April 7 statement.
Toner condemned the persecution of LGBT people. He urged the Russian government to speak out against the detainment, demand release of the "wrongfully detained" individuals, conduct an "independent and credible investigation" into reported claims of the mass arrests, and to "hold any perpetrators responsible."
Human Rights First's Shawn Gaylord applauded the State Department's response to the situation, calling it an "important first step."
However, he urged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to make the situation in Chechnya a key part of his agenda during his meeting this week with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.
"The situation on the ground is so horrific that Secretary Tillerson must make this a central part of his agenda when he meets with Minister Lavrov," Gaylord said in an April 4 statement. "A failure to do so will provide cover for these abuses to continue."
Gaylord has been monitoring the situation in Chechnya since the beginning of the year.
U.K. Minister of State Joyce Anelay agreed, "The statement by the regional government, implying that such treatment towards LGBT people is acceptable, is particularly abhorrent," she said, according to Pink News.
Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin used Tillerson's own words to urge him to act in Chechnya.
"This is a crucial moment to make it clear that the U.S. will indeed 'work aggressively to advance human rights for everyone,' as you have said," he wrote in a letter this week.
Jessica Stern, executive director of OutRight Action International, was more forceful in her condemnation.
"The perpetrators of this malicious campaign must be held accountable for the systematic detention, torture, and killings of innocent men in Chechnya," said Stern in an April 6 news release. "No government should get away with such wanton human rights violations."
Responding to the international outcry, Russia's Commissioner for Human Rights Tatiana Moskalkova also asked the Chechnya Prosecutor General's office and Public Prosecutor's office to investigate reports of abduction of LGBT people, reported Crime Russia.
The Russian LGBT Network's free hotline within Russia is 8 800 555 73 74 or email email@example.com.
The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association in Europe has opened a phone line for people to confidentially report human rights violations against LGBT people in Chechnya at +32 2 609 54 10 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amnesty International, All Out, and Care2.org have launched petitions to urge Russia's government to investigate and protect its LGBT citizens. To sign the petitions, visit https://go.allout.org/en/a/chechen-100/?akid=14084.2993523.skNcsA&rd=1&t=1&utm_campaign=chechen-100&utm_medium=email&utm_source=actionsuite, https://www.amnesty.org.uk/actions/stop-abducting-and-killing-gay-men-chechnya, or http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/285/275/688/?TAP=1007&cid=causes_petition_postinfo.
Philippine court upholds U.S. marine's guilty verdict
The Philippine Court of Appeals upheld the guilty verdict of U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton in the murder of transgender woman Jennifer Laude in 2014.
Pemberton, a former lance corporal stationed in the Philippines, was found guilty for murdering Laude by a lower court in 2015.
He appealed the court's decision. However, the Court of Appeals denied Pemberton's appeal April 3. The court's decision that his appeal lacked merit wasn't made public until April 10.
The court also raised the compensation Pemberton must pay to Laude's family from $1,612.50 to $3,023, reported South China Morning Post.
Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at Skype: heather.cassell, or mailto:.