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Gay and Bi men targeted for detention in Chechnya

Who will be be protected?

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In March, news surfaced of human rights abuses in Chechnya, where over one hundred gay and bisexual men have been detained, tortured, and at least three have been killed.

Chechnya is a region where human rights violations are severe and long-standing, and obviously didn’t just start with recent round of arrests and detentions. Human Rights Watch reports that thousands of people have been kidnapped, tortured, and detained in recent years, including drug users, ethnic minorities, and anyone who could be considered to be an extremist, usually meaning that people in power have some doubt about their politics. Gay and bi men have been targeted as part of these abuses throughout, but what makes the current situation different is the specific focus on gay and bi men.

Police who are conducting the detainment of gay men in Chechnya are finding people using social media channels. Local law enforcement have hacked accounts, for example on social networking sites where men are seeking relationships with other men. Then, when the men are detained, their contacts also become suspects, including people who call them or have a text message history with them. This use of social networks to find people of “nontraditional sexual orientation” means that it doesn’t matter to law enforcement whether or not a person is caught being sexual, but that the suspicion of being gay or bi is reason enough to target them.

It’s difficult to hear about the hacking of gay Chechens’ social media accounts and not make connections to the accusations of Russian hacking related to the U.S. presidential election, and the ongoing information wars taking place in cyberspace, begging questions of who and what can be trusted sources of truth. The development of the Internet has in many ways been positive for LGBT people, because it can facilitate connection in the face of isolation. But what happens when these networks are weaponized toward LGBT people?

One consequence of the hacking is that groups trying to help this situation are not always readily trusted by those they seek to serve, because of an atmosphere of suspicion. The Russia LGBT Network, a non-governmental human rights organization helping gay and bi men flee persecution in Chechnya and find safe harbor elsewhere, has faced challenges reaching the people it is trying to serve. Even representatives in Russia from the Russia LGBT Network have needed to stay anonymous as they reach out to the broader network of human rights activists for coordination and public messaging on this effort.

The Network started receiving letters from people in Chechnya about the detentions sites in April, and they investigated and set up a special hotline to help relocate people. Through mid-May, they were successful in emigrating about 40 people, some of whom had been tortured themselves and some of whom witnessed others being beaten and even killed. The people who have contacted the Network do not know if they can trust it, or if it is a front by the government to identify more gay people, so the fact that some people have gone ahead and reached out anyway demonstrates the desperation on the ground in Chechnya.

Complicating the matters of whose information to trust, Amnesty International reports that Adam Shakhidov, a Counsellor to the Head of Chechnya, publicly accused independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta of lies and described its staff members as “the enemies of our faith and homeland” for their March report on the mass detention of over one hundred men “in connection with their nontraditional sexual orientation, or suspicion of such.” Again, this rhetoric should sound familiar to anyone paying attention to current U.S. and global politics, where accusations of “fake news” and media being an enemy of the people have become commonplace.

In this context of hacking, information wars, and “fake news” accusations, what can LGBT people and allies in the U.S. do to support LGBT people in Chechnya, in the face of extreme oppression at the hands of government and deeply-rooted cultural homophobia? There are, of course, no easy answers. Unsurprisingly, activists have looked to social media as part of the solution.

The Russia LGBT Network has called for awareness-raising and international pressure on social media using the hashtag #EyesOnChechnya. Posts utilizing this hashtag should be geared toward pressuring Russian government to investigate and put a stop to the purge, and to get the U.S. and others to offer sanctuary to the victims. So far, this pressure has led so some small successes. Human Rights Watch worked closely with Congress and the Equality Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives on a bipartisan letter with 150 signatures.

Amnesty International invites advocates to use their website to contact Aleksandr Ivanovich Bastrykin, Chairman of the Investigation Committee of the Russian Federation to address the threats made against Novaya Gazeta staff members and ensure that they are investigated promptly, effectively, and impartially in accordance with Article 144 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation regarding the “obstruction of lawful professional activities of journalists.”

To be sure, the oppression faced by LGBT Chechens is deeper than contemporary weaponization of social media. But we would do well to deepen our understanding of the intersections of online privacy issues, authoritarian government systems, human rights, and our multi-national LGBT communities.

The mission of the LGBT Center of Central PA is to create common ground for the LGBT community and allies in central Pennsylvania by providing services through educational, cultural, and community activities that foster wholeness.

At publication, Marven served as executive director of the LGBT community center coalition.