BY KAREN OCAMB, LOS ANGELES BLADE
The anniversary of the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando is just weeks away. Presidential candidate Donald Trump and more recently, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, used the murder of 49 and the wounding of 53 mostly gay Latinos on June 12, 2016 by an American killer sympathetic to ISIS as campaign fodder to get gay votes, suggesting they’d be tough on anti-LGBT terrorists. And yet since assuming the presidency, Trump has remained silent about the government-ordered atrocities against the LGBT community in the Russian Republic of Chechnya. And some Los Angeles leaders are calling him out.
With public focus on the daily fallout from Trump’s twitter feed and the deepening revelations into his ties to Russia, the anti-gay pogroms have been largely overshadowed. The crackdown started in early April, reported by the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, after the Moscow-based GayRussia.ru applied for gay pride parade permits in four Caucasus cities, sparking religious protests. Crime Russia claims the sweeps actually started with the arrest of one gay man whose phone was confiscated and his contacts traced. But in Chechnya the arrests lead to “a mass ‘prophylactic’ cleansing of homosexuals, the security service agents told the gay men as they rounded them up.”
At least three gay men were reported killed, according to Human Rights Watch–one died during his torture with the other two dying at the hands of relatives as “honor killings” upon release. About 100 gay men were arrested, tortured and locked in concentration camps.The Russian LGBT Network later said as many as 20 men may be victims of extrajudicial killings.
“Once they bring you there,” a survivor told Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, project director for Russia and the North Caucasus at International Crisis Group about the secret prison, “they immediately start the beatings and electrocutions, demanding information about who you were dating.”
“Some think they are sadists and we are simply another social group that they are terrorizing,” a gay Chechen told Sokirianskaia, “but in fact, it is part of their new ideology of a ‘pure nation.'”
The chilling prospect of a brutal, deadly purge of gays from Chechnya was revealed late April when openly gay Conservative Sir Alan Duncan, Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, told the British parliament: “Human rights groups report that these anti-gay campaigns and killings are orchestrated by the head of the Chechen republic, Ramzan Kadyrov. He has carried out other violent campaigns in the past, and this time he is directing his efforts at the LGBT community. Sources have said that he wants the [LGBT] community eliminated by the start of Ramadan….Such comments, attitudes and actions are absolutely beyond contemptible.”
Ramadan begins May 26.
On Friday, May 12, Rep. Adam Schiff, Los Angeles City Council members Mitch O’Farrell, Mike Bonin and Paul Koretz and LA LGBT Center CEO Lorri L. Jean held a news conference at LA City Hall to highlight the dire situation, condemn the violations of human rights, and call on the Trump administration to take action.
“I have been appalled to learn of the ongoing atrocities being committed against members of the LGBT community in Chechnya,” said Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 elections. “Life, liberty and security are fundamental human rights that we are all entitled to, regardless of who we are, or who we love, and the United States must speak out against these attacks on fellow human beings. We cannot be silent and look the other way — the United States must serve as a beacon of hope for vulnerable populations around the world. We must recommit ourselves to protect and promote the human rights and dignity of all persons.”
“President Trump is so completely tone deaf as it relates to the consequences of violence that authoritarianism breeds, and so engulfed in the meltdown of his own administration, that we cannot realistically expect a show of leadership from our own Executive Branch of government to pressure or shame the Russian government into addressing the persecution of the LGBT community within their borders,” said O’Farrell. “The Trump administration must act and act now, and world leaders must speak in one voice. If the President will not do this, then we will do it ourselves.”
And that’s starting to happen. On May 9, the Human Rights Campaign, Human Rights First and Amnesty International USA rallied in front of the Russian ambassador’s residence in Washington DC and a new Twitter hashtag – #EyesOnChechnya is connecting people and information.
A grassroots movement to help is also underway in Los Angeles. OnMay 20, JQ INTL, World Congress of GLBT Jews, and Friends of Project 10 are co-sponsoring an #EyesOnChechnya march and rally, from 1:30-4 p.m., starting at Pershing Square in downtown LA and going to the Federal Building for a rally.
O’Farrell, Bonin and Koretz introduced a Resolution condemning Putin and calling on the Trump administration to take action–beyond the statements issued by the State Department saying it was “deeply disturbed” by the reports and US Ambassador to the United Nation, Nikki Haley, who said the abuses “cannot be ignored.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May condemned the gay persecution as “utterly barbaric.” and foreign ministers from Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, France and Sweden sent a joint letter calling on Russia to investigate the atrocities. And on May 2, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood next to President Vladimir Putin at a joint news conference in Sochi and told reporters she had called on the Russian government to investigate, as well. “[W]e are getting negative reports about how gay people are being treated in Chechnya. I asked President Vladimir Putin to use his influence to protect these minority rights,” she said.
In fact, Putin held a televised meeting with Chechnya leader Ramzan A. Kadyrov on April 19 during which Kadyrov called the news reports of an anti-gay pogrom by security forces “libelous” and complained that the “provocative articles” were on issues he felt “embarrassed” to discuss.
Alvi Karimov, a spokesperson for Kadyrov, claimed the reports were false because there were no gay people in the Muslim-majority region. “It’s impossible to persecute those who are not in the republic,” Karimov said, according to the state news agency RIA Novosti.
“If there were such people in Chechnya, law-enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning,” he said. He accused the human rights organizations of creating fake news, conducting a “massive information attack…using the most unworthy methods, reality is distorted, attempts are being made to blacken our society, lifestyle, traditions and customs.”
After the meeting with Kadyrov, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitri S. Peskov, told journalists that the Russian authorities had found no evidence that the Chechen police had arrested gay men.
Meanwhile, Trump cozied up with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office on May 10, with only Russian press allowed in and no independent reports of what was discussed. It is highly unlikely, however, that one of the topics was the persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya.
But with Ramadan fast approaching, LGBT people and allies around the world are not waiting. The L.A. City Council members filed a resolution condemning Chechnya and the Russian Federation and noted that “Los Angeles has been and continues to be a welcoming city to refugees and asylum seekers from all parts of the world, including those who have suffered persecution for being LGBT in Russia.” However, since Chechnya is a majority Muslim country with a history of being a “breeding ground for terrorists,” gay Muslims escaping Chechnya may not be welcoming in Trump’s America, with or without a “Muslim ban” on refugees and asylum-seekers.
Next week, California Rep. Barbara Lee, working with Human Rights First and other LGBT and human rights organizations, is reintroducing International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), highlighting the “alarming situation” in Chechnya and calling for U.S. leadership to press the Russian government to stop the atrocities.
“The U.S. and other countries must now focus on helping members of the LGBT community flee the tragic situation unfolding in Chechnya. Simply moving to another part of Russia will not be sufficient. Indeed, the presence of a Chechen diaspora throughout Europe means that for many real safety will only be achieved by relocating farther away, including in the United States,” Shawn Gaylord, out Advocacy Counsel for Human Rights First, told the Los Angeles Blade.
There are other efforts underway, as well. A Change.org petition calling for the Russians to investigate the detentions and torture, which resulted in five LGBT Network activists being arrested May 11 as they tried to present the petition to Russia’s Prosecutor General in central Moscow.
New Jersey-based Fred Erick created American Friends of Rainbow Railroad on social media, to support the Canadian organization Rainbow Railroad in helping LGBT people escape and settle in Canada and other safe host countries. “We are partnering with the Russian LGBT Network to help persecuted individuals in Chechnya,” the Rainbow Railroad told OutBuzz. “Currently, 30 gay men have escaped to safe houses in Russia and we have helped two of these men escape the region altogether to safe countries. However, this is just the beginning of our work.”
Alturi, an American online organization dedicated to helping fund global LGBT activism, created a campaign on behalf of ILGA Europe and KPH Poland to help evacuate gays.
“The money we raise will be sent to organizations who work with gay and bisexual Chechens on the ground. It will finance their travel, visa and subsistence costs until they arrive at their final, safe destinations,” says A. Chaber, Executive Director of KPH Poland and Treasurer at ILGA-Europe of the Save a Life in Chechnyacampaign.
“It has been great to see the global response to the situation in Chechnya,” Charlie Rounds, Executive Director of Alturi told the Los Angeles Blade. “As an American, I am extremely happy that even as we are under daily attack by our national, state, and local governments tens of thousands of Americans are donating money, signing petitions and making calls to elected officials to help alleviate the great suffering of the Chechen LGBT Community. This response has been swift and powerful and serves a reminder to global despots that even though [President] Obama is no longer in office – that they literally cannot get away with murder. As we yelled during the 1968 Democratic National Convention ‘the whole world is watching.'”