Since news broke nearly two weeks ago of authorities in Chechnya arresting men suspected of being gay and torturing them in a secretive detention center, a Russian emergency hotline said it has received increasing pleas for help from people who have been targeted.
“We have received about 30 unique messages since April 2,” said Natalia Poplevskaia, the International Advocacy Officer and Monitoring Program Coordinator with the Russian LGBT Network. She said the messages are “from residents or former residents of Chechnya who have already been evacuated through their channels.”
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Poplevskaia told NBC News the organization set up the emergency hotline after learning about a law enforcement crackdown on Chechen men who are believed to be gay or bisexual. Police began arresting the men in late February and taking them to what Poplevskaia described as a former military barracks near the Chechen town of Argun, where the men have been severely tortured, with reportedly as many as 20 killed.
Men who were released from detention spoke with the Russian LGBT Network and the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which first reported news of the anti-LGBTQ “honor killings” in Chechnya on April 1.
The men who escaped described rooms in which anywhere from 15 to 30 prisoners were held without food, tortured with electric shocks and beaten — sometimes to death. One source who called the hotline described seeing two well-known Chechen figures detained, including a local TV presenter. Other sources described being forced to give the names and numbers of other LGBTQ men to officers.
Poplevskaia said the Russian LGBT Network has begun helping gay and bisexual men flee Chechnya but did not want to describe details of the evacuation program out of safety concerns.
“People are very intimidated and not eager to talk. They are hesitant to even talk to us,” explained Poplevskaia, who said the organization was not connecting victims with reporters for interviews at this time. “The people who have been targeted by the campaign need some time to get back to normal life.”
Last Friday, the State Department released a statement that not only addressed the reports but also slammed Chechen officials for making derogatory comments about the situation.
“We are increasingly concerned about the situation in the Republic of Chechnya, where there have been numerous credible reports indicating the detention of at least 100 men on the basis of their sexual orientation,” State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said in the April 7 release.
“We are deeply disturbed by recent public statements by Chechen authorities that condone and incite violence against LGBTI persons,” Toner continued. “We urge Russian federal authorities to speak out against such practices, take steps to ensure the release of anyone wrongfully detained, conduct an independent and credible investigation into these reports, and hold any perpetrators responsible.
A spokesperson for Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, denied the existence of LGBTQ people in Chechnya, telling the Interfax news agency, “You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic.”
And Kheda Saratova, who is on Kadyrov’s human rights council, recently appeared on a Russian radio show and encouraged Chechens to “hunt down this kind of person without any help from authorities, and do everything to make sure that this kind of person does not exist in our society,” The Guardian reported.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, responded to the reports of gay men being targeted in Chechnya last week, saying the alleged victims should file an official complaint, according to Interfax.
“We do not have such information and it is not a prerogative of the Kremlin. If any actions have been taken by the law enforcement agencies, which, in the opinion of some citizens, were taken with some irregularities, these citizens can use their rights, file relevant complaints, and go to court,” Peskov said.
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the Human Rights Campaign, urged Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to address the crisis in Chechnya as he traveled to Russia on Wednesday.
Chechnya is a federal republic of Russia located in the North Caucasus region, above Georgia, Armenia and Turkey. The government has been criticized by international human rights groups for the torture and executions of separatist activists, for defending “honor killings” and for the oppression of women.
In January 2016, Human Rights Watch issued a report describing patterns of state-sponsored violence and abuses under Ramzan Kadyrov, the current head of the Chechen Republic.
Ukrainian journalist Maxim Eristavi, who is openly gay and frequently comments on LGBTQ and human rights issues across Eastern Europe, told NBC News that Kadyrov’s forces have “one of the worst human rights records of all Russian regions.”
“What is happening right now with gay men is part of a longtime practice of state violence towards dissenting voices in Chechnya,” Eristavi said, adding that reporters from Novaya Gazeta have been killed in the past after reporting on the region.
But Eristavi took issue with some media reports that referred to the Argun detention center as a “gay concentration camp,” saying the center has been in use for some time to hold and torture various detainees — not just LGBTQ ones.
“Calling it a concentration camp is actually inaccurate. Creating more misinformation can damage and endanger people on the ground and discredit those who are trying to bring more attention to the issue,” Eristavi said.
While reports of a concentration camp may not be accurate, human rights groups have said the Chechen situation is the worst abuse of LGBTQ people seen in years.
Maria Sjodin, Deputy Executive Director at Outright International, told NBC News she’s heard reports of 100 or more people being detained on suspicion of homosexuality.
“There’s nothing on this scale,” Sjodin said. “We’ve heard of attacks from both state and non-state actors around the world happening on a fairly frequent basis, but based on the information that’s available — this is set apart.”
Even in Russia, where hate crimes and discrimination have risen since Putin signed a law banning “gay propaganda” in 2013, the level of violence is unusual. Poplevskaia said that while the Russian LGBT Network has documented hundreds of hate crimes per year, they’ve never seen anything like this.
Outright International, formerly the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, is asking the UN Secretary General to publicly condemn the anti-LGBTQ campaign in Chechnya, Sjodin said. She added that “it’s important to have several governments speak out.”
Both Sjodin and Eristavi noted that when it comes to human rights abuses in Chechnya, the buck stops with Russia.
“It’s not helpful to look at this through just lenses of religion or culture or regionality,” Eristavi explained, dismissing the idea that Chechnya’s Muslim majority was a factor in its LGBTQ oppression. “It’s a state-sponsored campaign of violence supported by the Kremlin.”
“Russia is the state that is responsible for responding to this,” Sjodin said. “The international community has to put pressure on Russia to intervene.”