Russia Investigates Chechnya's Bloody Anti-Gay Purge

Saturday marks the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan when, across the world, Muslims will begin their fast, unable to eat or drink until sundown. But for Chechnya's Muslim leader Ramzan Kadyrov it was also supposed to mark an end: in late April, Kadyrov promised to eliminate all gay people from Chechnya before the start of Ramadan.

It was a barbaric promise but it is one that Kadyrov had strived to fulfil. In late February, police began rounding up Chechens they believed to be gay and held them unlawfully in several detention centers in the Russian region. There, they were beaten, electrocuted and deprived of food and water. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reports that 26 people have died as a result of the purge.

The crackdown continued until at least early April when, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch, in the first three weeks of the month the Russian LGBT Network received calls from 75 people who had been affected.

Fifty-two of these people said they had been detained and tortured. They, and other detainees, said police forced them to give information about other gay men before returning them to their families. The officers advised some of the families to kill these men in so-called honor killings.

Read more: LGBT groups to take Chechen government to court over "gay genocide"

For all of Kadyrov's bluster, he has refused to acknowledge the bloody crackdown and human rights abuses that he has overseen. In a meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 19, Kadyrov outrightly denied implementing an anti-gay purge. Claiming that reports of the arrests were false, he dismissed "provocative articles about the Chechen Republic, the supposed events… the supposed detentions."

At the time, Putin didn't ask any further questions and, given his track record on homosexuality, many LGBT advocates interpreted his silence as tacit support of Kadyrov. In 2013, Putin passed a law banning the promotion of "nontraditional sexual relationships" in Russia. Human Rights Watch said of the law: "[It] effectively legalized discrimination against LGBT people and cast them as second-class citizens."

But since April Putin seems to have changed his mind. On May 26, the Guardian, citing Novaya Gazeta, reported that Kremlin officials are believed to be actively investigating claims of the purge, likely motivated by the international outcry to the crackdown. Condemnation of Chechnya has not been limited to activists. On May 2, in her first visit to Russia in two years, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Putin to investigate the reports from the region.

The Human Rights Watch report offers damning evidence that Kadyrov would have been well aware of what was happening to Chechens suspected of being gay. According to the report, his second-in-command, Speaker of the Chechen Parliament Magomed Daudov, was responsible for "securing and giving approval from the Chechen leadership." Detainees, the report says, "also spotted Daudov at detention sites, watching the police administer beatings."

Despite Russia's investigation, there is no certainty that Putin will discipline Kadyrov over his treatment of gay people. Though Russian officials have in the past expressed frustration with the unpredictable Chechen leader, he and Putin remain close. It is likely that Chechen authorities will do their best to try and persuade Russia to drop the investigation or at least not examine things too closely.

In this, Chechen lawmakers might be aided by their victims. Many men caught up in the purge don't want to speak openly about what happened to them, lest they face further violence. Those who have been released are instead focused on getting out of Chechnya. The Russian LGBT Network has said it has helped 40 people leave the region, with some receiving visas to live abroad. Lithuania has said it resettled two men, while the Canadian organization Rainbow Railroad said it arranged foreign visas for seven men, though it didn't say which country or countries these were for.

Despite the horrors of what they endured, these men are the lucky ones. An unknown number of Chechens are still in detention camps, with officials telling their families to cover up their disappearances. On May 21, Novaya Gazeta reported (in Russian) that when Russian investigators turned up at a site detainees had said was a concentration camp, they found it destroyed. When they attempted to find the relocated prisoners at a second site, Chechen officials barred them from entering.