The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s a rising global tide of crackdowns on LGBT communities

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This week, a government journal in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan announced that the country's interior ministry had compiled a registry of “proven” gays and lesbians. The list named 319 men and 48 women, whom Tajik federal prosecutors identified in operations they called “Morality” and “Purge.”

A purge — likely in the form of mass incarcerations — is exactly what human rights organizations are afraid will happen. But the phenomenon would not be unique to Tajikistan: Over the past few months, police in Egypt, Azerbaijan, Tanzania, Indonesia and the Russian republic of Chechnya have rounded up people suspected of being gay — and in many cases tortured or publicly humiliated them.

What's more, many of the crackdowns look like “copycats” of one another. “There are a lot of ways in which these crackdowns follow the same sequence of events,” said Kyle Knight, a researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch. “And there's reason to believe that what's happening in Tajikistan now is based on things their government there has learned from, say, what Azerbaijan just did.”

The sequence generally starts with someone — most likely a religious figure or government official — publicly denigrating acts of alleged sexual deviance. In countries where homosexuality is taboo and driven underground, such comments may be the first thing a person has heard in public about LGBT people.

“It is easy to say that these particular people are spreading disease, that they are foreigners or sinners. From a starting point of ignorance, prejudice is an easy next step,” said Knight.

Then things get dangerous. As public anger grows against sexual minorities, political leaders often have no tools to counter the tide. In most of the countries listed above, homosexuality is not illegal. But there also aren't any nondiscrimination laws that include sexuality. Without them, political leaders have to expend their own political capital to step in — assuming they think LGBT communities deserve protection at all. Instead, leaders usually side with the denunciations, or even calls for criminalization, and obscenity and prostitution laws are often turned against sexual minorities.

My colleagues in Jakarta, Moscow and Cairo have all recently documented that sequence. “These communities have always been targeted by police, but we've seen this worsen since 2016, when a number of high-level politicians made statements portraying LGBT communities as immoral or a threat to the nation,” said Ricky Gunawan, the director of the Community Legal Aid Institute in Jakarta, to Vincent Bevins, writing for The Post.

One was Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, who said, “It's dangerous as we can't see who our foes are, but out of the blue everyone is brainwashed — now the [LGBT] community is demanding more freedom, it really is a threat.” President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Bevins noted, has kept silent during incidents like one in May, when two men were publicly caned for having sex with each other in the ultraconservative province of Aceh.

As of this Tuesday, at least 20 people in Egypt had received prison sentences ranging from six months to six years, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told our Cairo bureau chief, Sudarsan Raghavan. Four people were sentenced to three years each, and rights groups say some have already been beaten and forced to undergo anal examinations.

Of the 20, some were arrested for waving rainbow flags at a concert, others for Facebook posts supporting the LGBT community, and some were tracked down by police on gay dating apps and chatrooms. “The rainbow flag incident has made the public furious, and this gave an opportunity for the government and state security to start the arrests,” said Mohamed, an Egyptian gay rights activist who requested that his last name be withheld for security reasons, to Raghavan. “They are showing the people that 'we are conservative. We are embracing our traditions and customs.' "

In Azerbaijan, meanwhile, more than 80 people have been arrested since mid-September for suspected homosexuality. In an interview with Eurasianet, the spokesman for the country's ministry of internal affairs justified the crackdown by casting it as the will of the people. “The main reason for such raids was the numerous appeals from the residents of the capital,” he said. “People complain that such people walk around us, walk in our streets and sit in our cafes.”

The United Nations and Human Rights Watch have interviewed some of those arrested in Azerbaijian, who claim they were subjected to “electric shocks, beatings, forced shaving and other forms of humiliation to force them to incriminate themselves before being released,” according to a U.N. spokesman.

That torture and humiliation is reminiscent of what rights groups were hearing out of the Russian republic of Chechnya earlier this year. Roughly 100 people, mostly young men, were allegedly detained and mercilessly beaten as police attempted to force them to confess their homosexuality. This week, Maxim Lapunov became the first of them to lodge a formal complaint with Russia's Investigative Committee, which has previously dismissed allegations that any such “gay pogrom” ever took place.

In each of these countries, LGBT people are facing the wrenching decision of cutting ties with their communities, living clandestine lives of constant fear or trying to claim asylum abroad. And Knight, of Human Rights Watch, said conditions are ripe for similar crackdowns in countries all over the world, pointing to Malaysia, Kyrgyzstan and Moldova as examples.

But he also said he found an unlikely source of hope in the global response to some of these crackdowns, particularly the widespread condemnation of Chechnya.

“International outcry works,” said Knight. “Neither Putin nor Kadyrov has much tolerance for gay people, but after all the outcry, they had a meeting where they publicly addressed the issue. That they even brought it up was a huge deal. Putin has to think about things like 'Do I want that kind of blood on my hands before hosting the World Cup?' After that meeting, the roundups more or less stopped.”

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