Chechnya gay purge’s forgotten lesbian and transgender victims

It has been more than a year since news emerged of a crisis unfolding in Chechnya. Hundreds of gay men were being abducted and held in makeshift prison camps, where they were being tortured and killed.

A report published in the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta in April 2017 described how at least 100 men had been detained, with many more missing.

The crisis is still ongoing and human rights groups are working to evacuate those under threat from the region. But the gay purge, as it has been dubbed, is not just affecting men—lesbian and transgender women are being targeted, too.

Zamira*, a transgender woman from Chechnya, tells PinkNews she found out about the anti-LGBT purge last year. Although she didn’t believe it for a long time, she lived her life in hiding.

“I did not go out, I communicated with very few people. So I saw this information online only and like many others I believed that it was not true,”  she says, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Until the moment they started to hunt me.”

Zamira managed to flee Chechnya with the help of human rights activists working on the ground in the Russian autonomous region. She is now out of the region and living in relative safety in an undisclosed location, but she is still afraid.

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and I am afraid that there is someone behind the door,” she says.

“I am afraid to be alone. Once I was so scared that I blocked the entrance door with a bookshelf and refrigerator. This fear stays even with those who left Russia.”

A protest in Berlin calling on Russian President to put an end to the persecution of gay men in Chechnya. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty)

Initially, reports only detailed information about men being kidnapped, tortured and murdered at the hands of Chechen authorities. Yet Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-approved leader of Chechnya, has accused activists of fabricating allegations of abuse—and denied the existence of any LGBT people in the region.

“We were sure that women were also a target of this mass campaign but did not have any specific information,” a spokesperson for the Russian LGBT Network says.

At the beginning of 2018, the group started to receive information about women being targeted.

“As we see it, it is connected mostly with the specific position of women in Chechnya—they are always under the surveillance of relatives and have very few opportunities to leave even their cities,” the spokesperson adds.

So far, the Russian LGBT Network has evacuated 16 women from Chechnya and provided them with housing, food, basic goods and medical and psychological care. They also provide clothes, for those who fled overnight with nothing.

“Talking specifically about women, I can say that for them it is far more difficult to leave Chechnya, because they are mostly under a strict family control,” the spokesperson says.

“If the relatives are not aware about the situation, a man can say that he is going out of Chechnya for work, but for women such options are not accessible.”

Last year, a report published by the Russian LGBT Network detailed the harrowing story of a 22-year-old woman who allegedly died trying to flee the region.

The woman, who was unnamed, claimed her relatives had beaten and threatened to kill her after finding out she was a lesbian. She fled, jumped into a taxi and made for the airport, where she planned to take a flight to Moscow to pick up emigration documents to leave Russia for good.

Her taxi driver overheard her speaking to a friend on the phone and locked the doors, fearing repercussions for playing a part in her escape. She was driven home and a week later, she was dead. It’s unknown whether she died of natural causes.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (Instagram)

Tanya Lokshina, the associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, says the organisation has been receiving numerous cases of attacks against LGBT+ people by family members and government officials in Chechnya.

“Among the most notorious ones is the case of a Chechen pop-singer Zelim Bakaev who disappeared in August 2017, following his abduction by security officials in Grozny,” says Lokshina. “There are strong grounds to believe he was eventually killed by his captors. In fact, Ramzan Kadyrov hinted at his death being an ‘honour killing’ in a televised statement earlier this year.

“We’re also aware of several cases of women targeted because of their presumed sexual orientation and had to flee Chechnya under threat of honour killing.

“In one case, a young woman was rounded up by local police officers in spring this year, spent over two months in incommunicado detention, suffered ill-treatment and was eventually released into the hands of her family.”

Organisations like the Russian LGBT Network have helped dozens of people flee Chechnya, but many remain trapped, living a life of fear with threats of violence. Despite continued pressure on the Russian and Chechen authorities, the perpetrators carry on with impunity.

“I cannot say that my life is normal and free,” Zamira says. “I have to hide, but I understand that I cannot and I don’t want to live all my life that way. It is very hard.”

* Names have been changed/withheld to protect identities.