Buried by an avalanche of Trump-related news over the past few weeks, allegations of a shocking anti-gay purge in the Russian republic of Chechnya were slow to draw international attention. That no longer appears to be the case.
Reports that Chechen police were rounding up gay men and torturing them at a secret detention center first emerged this month from the Russian news media and activist groups. On Thursday, the Guardian published one of the most thorough accounts of the allegations, speaking directly to purported victims, who detailed electric shocks and beatings.
“Sometimes they were trying to get information from me; other times they were just amusing themselves,” one Chechen told the Guardian.
Chechnya has become increasingly socially conservative under the rule of Moscow-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Few gay people in Chechnya publicly acknowledge their sexuality for fear of persecution and lead double lives — a problem that not only leaves them susceptible to blackmail, but also makes it difficult to estimate the scale of the alleged persecution.
Most accounts estimate that hundreds of gay men may have been taken in during the purges; according to Russian reporters, at least three have died.
Authorities have dismissed the allegations. Kadyrov spokesman Alvi Karimov even said that the original report must be wrong because there were no gay people in Chechnya. “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” Karimov told Interfax, before suggesting that if a Chechen knew that a family member was gay, that relative would “have sent them to where they could never return.”
Meanwhile, the website of Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper that broke the story, came under a denial-of-service attack on Thursday.
Foreign governments have responded meekly, with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not publicly acknowledging the abuse allegations during his trip to Russia this week — despite an earlier State Department notice indicating concern.
And yet, as more information trickles out, the outrage seems to be growing. This week, several international organizations called on Russia to investigate the reports, while several hundred people protested outside the Russian Embassy in London on Wednesday.
The Kremlin may not listen. Vladimir Putin has voiced no qualms about Russia's new anti-gay laws, and, despite his volatility, Kadyrov remains valued for keeping the once-restive Chechnya under control.
But with relations between Moscow and Washington at a low ebb — and the U.S. president apparently mindful of the views of his more socially liberal New York family — the issue may still catch the attention of Donald Trump.
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