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Russian Republic Of Chechnya Accused Of Targeting Male Homosexuals


The Russian republic of Chechnya is accused of targeting gay people. Human rights groups and journalists report that police have rounded up more than 100 men suspected of being gay. Some say they were tortured. And a Russian newspaper says three have been killed.

Shaun Walker is on the line. He's the Moscow correspondent for The Guardian. And he joins us by Skype. Welcome to the program.


INSKEEP: Before we get to the particulars of this story, could you just tell me how accepted or not accepted gays and lesbians are in Russian society?

WALKER: Well, I think there's two parts to this, right? There's the situation in Russia as a whole. And, you know, Russia's quite a homophobic society. But still in Moscow and in other Russian cities, you know, you have a pretty thriving gay scene. You have gay nightclubs. You know, among the educated liberal elite, it's seen as perfectly normal. Down in Chechnya, things are a bit different - strongly Islamic place with these very, very traditional family and clan ties.

It's an extremely traditional society. And there, I mean, even speaking about the idea that there might be gay people is completely taboo. Even underground, there's no bar or club or scene where gay people would gather. So it's seen as, you know, really something that's totally unacceptable.

INSKEEP: Based on people you've talked with, what are the roundups like?

WALKER: Well, so what seems to have happened is that a few months ago, one gay man was detained in Chechnya. And that while the police were looking through his phone, they then based on his contacts decided to round up other people who they suspected of being gay. One of the people that I spoke to had been taken. He'd been lured basically to a meeting. An old friend of his who was another gay man had said, you know, I need you to come and come to this apartment. I need to talk to you.

So he went there. And when he got there, he realized it was a setup. And there were six police there. They dragged him off to what he thinks was some kind of police station. And he was kept in a room with more than a dozen other men. And they were beaten. They were tortured with electric shocks. His phone was also taken. The people - his captors - were going through his phone and asking about every contact. Is this person gay? Is this person gay?

And at the end of his ordeal, he was released to his family. And they basically said to his family, you know, who had no idea that he was gay, they said to his family, you know, your son's gay, do what you need to with him. And eventually, he actually ran away from his own family and is now safe outside Chechnya. But, you know, this is the kind of - the horrible thing about this story is that, you know, these people are not only fearing the authorities but many people are very scared of their families and this feeling that people could be killed in honor killings.

You know, the idea is that if people were to find out that you had a gay person in your family, that would be seen as a stain on the whole family. The other brothers and sisters wouldn't be able to get married, that the family would be shamed by other people. So there's this real worry that the danger for people after coming out of these horrible detentions when they're beaten and tortured is that they're then either beaten or even killed by members of their own families.

INSKEEP: As best you can determine, what is the point of the authorities here? What are they trying to accomplish by torturing gay people?

WALKER: The response that we've heard from the Chechen authorities for this, you know, predictably they've denied it all and said it was a lie. But what they seem to be offended by is not the allegation of the sort of torture and the roundups. But it's the very idea that there could be gay people existing in Chechnya.

So we've heard them say, you know, this is a - the only people who would suggest that there were gay people in Chechnya clearly understand nothing about Chechen society. And it's an affront to our male dignity to even suggest that these people might exist. So that's the sort of response we're getting. And, you know, perhaps it was that sort of, you know, misplaced masculinity, if you like, that was behind the start of this horrible roundup.

INSKEEP: You've mentioned that more than 100 people have been rounded up. Do you have any idea why it is that some people have been kept in custody and others have been released and have gotten away and have talked to you?

WALKER: Well, I think, you know, it's been very difficult to work out the exact numbers. What we know is that this has been happening in several different locations, you know, different towns in Chechnya. So it does appear to be a kind of coordinated campaign. You know, the people that I met, they all told me about, you know, various friends of theirs who they believe were also rounded up. They were unable to contact them because, you know, they don't know if these people are having their telephones watched.

They don't want to get in touch and get people in trouble. The gay organization that set up a hotline to help people either escape or, you know, if they already escaped from Chechnya to Moscow to give them some support in Moscow, they say that dozens and dozens of people have gotten in touch with them. So we know that it's quite a massive thing but we don't quite know the exact numbers really.

INSKEEP: Does the national government, led by President Vladimir Putin, care?

WALKER: Well, that's an interesting question. I mean, I think, you know, this story is fascinating because on the one hand, you know, it's a horrible tragedy for all these people that are directly caught up in it. The way it develops now will tell us a lot, really, about how much control the Kremlin has over the Chechen government. Because, you know, like I said, Russia's a homophobic society. You know, I don't think Putin is hugely tolerant to the idea of gay people but this kind of thing doesn't happen in other parts of Russia.

There's no way that the Kremlin wants to see gay people rounded up and tortured. And, of course, aside from all the humanitarian aspects, it's pretty horrible PR for Russia to have these stories going about. But, you know, we've seen time and time again that things that would be unacceptable in other parts of Russia happen in Chechnya.

I think, you know, this is really beyond the pale. I mean, this is really quite horrific. And whether the, you know, the phone call comes in from Moscow and says this is out of line, you've got to stop this and they do so, I think that will kind of - that will tell us a bit about just how much the Kremlin is able to control its sort of Chechen proxy.

INSKEEP: Shaun Walker of The Guardian in Moscow. Thanks very much.

WALKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.