WATCH | Human rights groups say Chechens are being persecuted because of their sexual orientation --and it's getting worse.
Gay men in Chechnya have long been at risk in the majority Muslim republic.
But this year, the pro-Kremlin government in the semi-autonomous region is targeting gay men more aggressively after a Moscow-based gay rights organization sought permits for gay pride parades in the area.
Human rights groups say the government is carrying out a wave of kidnappings, torture, and detentions of people in the region in southern Russia that borders Georgia.
"The Russian government is rounding up gay men," said Tarah Demant, director of Amnesty International's Gender, Sexuality, and Identity Program. "They're torturing them, and in some cases, these men are dying. It's happening for no other reason than the fact that they happen to be gay, or are presumed gay."
Elena Milashina, the editor of special projects at Novaya Gazeta, the Russian newspaper that first broke this story, confirmed to Voice of America that the first arrest of a gay man, made in February was under the guise of drug charges.
The suspected gay men in Chechnya are being rounded up, and their phones and social media are being used to locate and detain the other men that they have contacted, according to reports.
"They've been subject to torture and abuse including electric shock torture. They are then forced to give the names of their associates," said Graeme Reid, director of the LGBT Rights program for Human Rights Watch. "Also their social media accounts are accessed, and through that means the authorities establish their network of contacts, and then those people are in turn rounded up and detained in these informal detention centers where they, too, are subject to abuse.”
Three men have reportedly been killed and more than 100 men have been detained and tortured by Chechen security forces. Human rights advocates, who are are helping men victimized leave the region, worry there may be much more targeted violence.
"Not only is the Russian Federation letting this happen, this is happening by government officials. These are state police that is coming in, so they're Chechen police coming in and rounding up," Demant said.
Advocates say a culture of shame prompts so-called honor killings where a family feels their honor has been besmirched by their son or daughter being gay or lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and therefore commit violence against their own family member.
“The reality is it's not safe to stay and so I know that people are looking for ways out, trying to seek asylum in other places, trying to find avenues where they might live a life of peace and dignity, the way that all of us want to live," said Demant.
This May, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association published the 12th edition of their research on state-sponsored homophobia called A World Survey of Sexual Orientation Laws: Criminalisation, Protection and Recognition.
The survey concludes, "Arbitrary detention, torture and extra-judicial killing sound (thankfully) like alien terms to most of us, but this is exactly the reality faced by (perceived) gay and bisexual men in Chechnya."
You cannot arrest or repress people who just don't exist in the republic.
A spokesman for Chechen leader Ramdan Kadyrov said, "You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic."
Kadyrov was quoted saying there were no gay men because Chechens live by rules "prescribed by God."
Russian President Vladmir Putin has also been criticized for his country's record on LGBT rights, and in 2013, signed anti-gay legislation banning the "promotion" of homosexuality to minors.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel brought up the Chechen purge during a press conference with President Putin, and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed it with Putin during their first visit since he took office.
On April 5, the U.S. released a statement saying, "We are deeply disturbed by recent public statements by Chechen authorities that condone and incite violence against LGBTI persons. 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."
Reid said what's happening in Chechnya can't be separated from incidents in Russia.
"It creates a very chilling climate in Russia, and what our research shows it also leads to an increase of violence, and often violence with impunity," he said.
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