Activists are working to evacuate LGBT+ individuals from the Russian territory of Chechnya as international pressure intensifies over reports of mass arrests and human rights violations targeting gay men.
The Russia LGBT Network, an NGO based in the country, says it considers the alleged arrests, torturing and honour killing to be a systematic crime against humanity.
It’s understood that testimonials gathered by the network indicate that the alleged program is being carried out by government security services in the region.
Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, Russia Project Director with the International Crisis Group, tells SBS the systematic organisation of violence against gay people was unprecedented in the region.
“It is a real disaster, it's getting out of control,” she says.
She says there’s hope among activists that in the coming days the federal Russian government will step up to rein in the excesses of local authorities in the Islamic territory.
“All it would take is a phone call from Putin,” Ms Sokirianskaia says, “Putin is the only one who have leverage over the regime in Grozny.”
The territory is ruled by Putin-loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been accused of brutal human rights abuses during his decade-long reign.
“I'm sure if the Kremlin gives a very clear signal that this has to stop and the detention facilities have to be emptied - it would stop,” Ms Sokirianskaia says.
Federal Russian prosecutors announced on Monday that they would open an investigation into the allegations, with the journalist behind the initial newspaper report, Elena Milashina, telling SBS she would stay in the country despite death threats in order to speak with investigators.
Ms Milashina, who writes for Novaya Gazeta, says it is possible the federal government may intervene in the Chechen republic.
“It depends on what actually the government wants – if they want a real investigation then yes, I think they will put real pressure on Chechnya authorities to stop and they will save a lot of people,” she says.
Ms Sokirianskaia says the Chechen government’s response to the reports had been “outrageous”.
Spokespeople for the Chechen leader have denied that gay people exist in the territory, suggesting they would be killed by their relatives if they did.
Editors of Novaya Gazeta have accused Chechen authorities of inciting violence against the media for their reporting—many Chechens appear to have taken the revelations that gay people exist in the territory as an ethno-religious insult.
The Chechen Minister for Information says that editors of Novaya Gazeta are being hysterical, and that Chechen’s would not attack “unarmed people, even if they are rascals.”
“What reaction did you expect from militant mountain men, for whom, even casually, the mention in their presence of the mortal sin of Sodom is already an insult?” he wrote on Instagram, a popular platform for Kadyrov himself.
The International Crisis Group says they have corroborated many of the details in Novaya Gazeta – but that reports of mass ‘concentration camps’ are exaggerations.
Ms Sokirianskaia says it appears officials were using illegal detention centres, established to unlawfully detain suspected terrorists, activists and government opponents – an allegation Human Rights Watch has previously raised concerns about.
“Public investigation is extremely hard in Chechnya,” Ms Sokirianskaia says.
“Those documenting the situation will be singled out - it’s such a deeply taboo topic that relatives don't report it, and indeed in some cases may commit honour killings perpetuating the violence.”
The level of fear is likely to challenge any investigators attempting to find proof, she says.
“The last thing that people want to do is give their names - they are afraid their names will become public and their families will be targeted.”
The Russia LGBT Network has been evacuating gay men to Moscow, and is seeking to work with international partners to get them out of the country altogether.
“Since it is dangerous for most of those persecuted to remain in Russia, the Network also works hard helping the victims to relocate abroad,” the network tells supporters via email.
The network says it is also providing psychological, financial and medical assistance to those who have fled.
It says it has received “around 50” requests for help from people in the region.
The network says it intends to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court, although without a UN Security Council referral it’s unlikely the court will have jurisdiction to investigate.
Even if a resolution is brought before the council, it’s almost certain to be vetoed by Russia.
The LGBT network has been gathering evidence on the allegations from those who have fled the region and intends to present a public report in late May.
Ms Sokirianskaia says the International Crisis Group supports full, thorough investigations, but it seems hopes for actual accountability are dim.
“The regime in Chechnya has functioned with impunity for years,” she says.