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Russia: Chechen Officials and Clerics Threaten Journalists

Fear of Retaliation for Article Exposing Anti-Gay Abuse Campaign

(Moscow) – Chechen officials and clerics are threatening the newspaper that first exposed the campaign of police abuse against men in Chechnya perceived to be gay, Human Rights Watch said today. Russian authorities should unequivocally condemn the threats, investigate them, and ensure that journalists are protected from harm.

The head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, on December 13, 2011.  © 2011

On April 1, 2017, Novaya Gazeta published an article documenting that Chechen police have been rounding up men believed to be gay and holding them in secret detention, where they submit the men to humiliation and torture. During the following week, the newspaper published another in-depth article on the same topic, including accounts from several victims. The abusive campaign has drawn condemnation from the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Union, the United States, and many other countries.

“The threats to Novaya Gazeta for exposing the appalling events in Chechnya are extremely serious,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The history of threats and violence against the paper’s journalists who work on Chechnya make this situation especially alarming.”

In an April 15 letter to Novaya Gazeta’s editor posted to his Instagram account, Chechnya's press and information minister, Jambulat Umarov, demanded that the newspaper “apologize to the Chechen people” for suggesting that gay men exist among Chechens, calling it a “filthy provocation.” Umarov also demanded that Novaya Gazeta reveal its sources, and warned that if the newspaper did not stop publishing “hysteria” about “non-existent threats,” then people who are “more annoyed by your newspaper than we are” would take care of them.

It was the second time in two weeks that Chechen officials and clerics had threatened Novaya Gazeta. On April 3, Chechen television broadcast a gathering of Chechnya’s religious leaders and public figures, together with what it said was 15,000 people in Grozny, the Chechen capital, to protest the article. In a speech to the crowd, an adviser to Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Chechnya, accused the newspaper of defamation and called its journalists “enemies of our faith and of our motherland.” The crowd adopted a resolution that threatened retribution against the journalists “wherever they are and without any statute of limitations.”

In an April 14 statement, Novaya Gazeta said it fears for the safety of the entire paper’s staff because of the threats. Also on April 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin had received a letter from Novaya Gazeta’s chief editor about the threats, and that the Kremlin was following the situation closely. He also deplored any action that would “threaten the life or safety of journalists.” Anyone who was offended by the publications, he said, should turn to the courts and act within the law. Peskov also said the Kremlin had no confirmed information about the anti-gay abuse.

Novaya Gazeta found that police hold the men for periods ranging from one day to several weeks, and in many cases “outed” them to their families and encouraged their relatives to restore family honor through honor killings. At least three men have died as a result of the purge. Human Rights Watch has confirmed the anti-gay purge, including through interviews with victims.
Mass pro-Kadyrov rally organized by Chechen authorities in Grozny in January 2016.

In Russia, the government in 2016 further tightened control over the already-shrinking space for free expression, association, and assembly and intensified persecution of independent critics. 

Essential Background

The horrific campaign, which began in late February, is taking place in the context of the tyranny Kadyrov has created in his decade-long rule, with the tacit approval of the Kremlin, Human Rights Watch said. Kadyrov’s control touches virtually all aspects of social life, including politics, religion, academic discourse, and family matters. Any form of dissent is ruthlessly punished.

Elena Milashina, the Novaya Gazeta reporter who uncovered Kadyrov’s anti-gay purge, is well-known for her courageous reporting on egregious rights abuses in Chechnya. Milashina, honored by Human Rights Watch for extraordinary activism in 2009, effectively picked up the mantle from her colleague and mentor, Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in a contract killing in Moscow 10 years ago. Milashina has received numerous death threats in connection with her Chechnya work. The authorities have not effectively investigated the threats against her.

“It’s good the Kremlin deplored the recent threats against Novaya Gazeta, but it is somewhat hollow given that over the years, the Kremlin has allowed Kadyrov to believe he can act above the law, no matter how violently” Williamson said. “The Kremlin needs to respond with a serious investigation into the campaign of police abuse against gay men and threats against Novaya Gazeta.”

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