THE MONSTER OF CHECHNYA
Who is Ramzan Kadyrov, the dictator behind Europe’s first concentration camps for gays since World War II?
Ramzan Kadyrov was once a Chechen rebel who fought against Russia for independence. Now, installed as Chechen president by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, he’s a Moscow puppet and runs Chechnya as his personal fiefdom. Like Trump and Putin, he carefully cultivates a “strong-man” image and is almost a comic figure: he created a reality TV show with himself as the star after becoming president. But he is also terrifying – he’s the first European leader to set up concentration camps for gay men since World War II. Feature by Andrew M Potts.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in December of 1991, Ramzan Kadyrov was just 15. His homeland, Chechnya, is a speck of a country on Russia’s southern border. It had been one of the first to attempt to strike out on its own in the dying days of the USSR. Members of its independence movement invaded a local session of the Supreme Soviet and installed Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former air force general, as the first independent leader of the short-lived Chechen Republic Of Ichkeria.
Ramzan’s father Akhmad was an Islamic scholar and Dudayev loyalist, and was appointed Chief Mufti of the new republic. But Russia was having none of this. Unlike other Soviet territories gained under Communism, Russia had had close ties to Chechnya since the time of Peter The Great. If Chechnya had been allowed to leave, large parts of what now make up the Russian Federation would have followed.
Faced with the prospect of Russia being carved up, President Boris Yeltsin reasserted control in 1994. In response, Akhmad Kadyrov declared a jihad against Moscow, and the First Chechen War began, with Ramzan fighting by his father’s side.
Akhmad’s declaration of jihad was a magnet to Islamic extremists from all over the globe and around 5,000 foreign volunteers f locked to join the fight. The Russians lost more tanks in the storming of Grozny than during the entire Battle Of Berlin. By 1997, Russia had lost the appetite for the war, Yeltsin signed a peace treaty, and withdrew his troops from Chechnya.
But Chechnya was left a bombed-out shell of a country. Nearly half the population lived in refugee camps. In the interwar period, banditry and kidnapping for ransom by corrupt officials and armed groups became
In 2016, he was, supposedly, re-elected by 98 per cent of voters… he celebrated by donning a medieval suit of armour.
the chief economic activity.
When Yeltsin’s deputy, Vladimir Putin redeployed troops to Chechnya in 1999 following a jihadist invasion of neighbouring Dagestan and a series of apartment block bombings across Russia, it was Akhmad who’d lost the appetite for conflict. He reached out to Putin, turned on the rebels with his own forces, and help end the Second Chechen War. In exchange, Putin, by now president, appointed him leader of a loyalist Chechen Republic inside the Russian Federation.
Young Ramzan was given control of his father’s personal militia, which, in turn, transformed into the Chechen Presidential Security Service.
Soon after becoming president, Akhmad reached out to the remaining rebels and held a series of amnesties. Former separatists were offered jobs in his security forces and police service as long as they surrendered peacefully. Close to 7,000 accepted the offer.
However, for the remaining Chechen rebel separatists, Akhmad’s deal with Russia was an unforgivable betrayal. On May 9, 2004, Akhmad was assassinated in a bombing during a parade celebrating Russia’s victory in World War II.
HIS FATHER’S SON
The very next day, young Ramzan was appointed the First Deputy Prime Minister of Chechnya, and the following year, he became caretaker Prime Minister after the then-Prime Minister was injured in a mysterious car crash.
Ramzan immediately implemented elements of Islamic Sharia law in Chechnya, banning the production of alcohol and outlawing gambling. He also announces plans to complete “the largest mosque in Europe,” which he would name after his father.
Three years later, Kadyrov was appointed President of Chechnya by President Putin. He was only 30 – the youngest age he could legally hold the position. He quickly filled key positions in the government with members of his own family.
In 2009, after the bodies of seven women were found dumped by roadsides, Ramzan publicly expressed his support for honour killings in Chechnya. “If a woman runs around and if a man runs around with her, both of them are killed,” Kadyrov said, according to the New York Times.
Unofficial “virtue” campaigns began around this time. Chechen women feared going outside without wearing a headscarf. Some un-scarved women reported being shot at with paintball guns. Covering their hair became mandatory for female teachers and other civil servants.
When Putin’s right-hand-man, Dmitry Medvedev, nominated Kadyrov for a second term in 2011, he was unanimously re-elected by the Chechen Parliament. This close relationship with Moscow has been mutually beneficial. In Russia’s 2012 election, if the results are to be believed, 99.7 per cent of Chechens voted for Putin’s return to the Presidency from a voter turnout of 99.6 per cent. Such fanciful election results are not uncommon in Chechnya. In 2016, Kadyrov was supposedly re-elected by nearly 98 per cent of voters, which he celebrated by donning a medieval suit of armour.
However, there have been dark rumours coming out of Chechnya for years about its celebrity strongman. Allegedly, he forces businesses and government employees to make mandatory payments to his family’s foundation. His security forces are accused of kidnapping and killing his critics and opponents, as well as the murder of journalists and critics of Putin.
In October of 2011, Kadyrov held a lavish celebration for his 35th birthday, f lying in celebrities including Jean-Claude Van Damme and British singer, Seal. Colombian musician Shakira was invited but declined to attend. When asked where the money for the celebration was coming from, Kadyrov told
The Telegraph, “Allah gives it to us… I don’t know, it comes from somewhere.”
Ramzan’s Instagram account, with its 2.6 million followers, reveals a celebrity lifestyle of sports cars and racehorses. He regularly posts workout videos from his lavish private gym.
In May of 2015, Kaydrov announced he would star in a Holly wood action movie called Whoever Doesn’t Understand Will
Get It. While t hat project has never come to fruition, the following year he launched a Donald Trump-style Apprentice reality show called The Team. It featured contestants from all over Russia vying to become the head of Chechnya’s Agency For Strategic Development. The eventual winner was a 24-year-old student.
In October last year, Kadyrov found himself in international headlines again after three of his children, all aged under 12, competed in full-contact fights, televised as part of his annual Grand Prix Akhmat Fighting Contest, sparking censure from Russia’s MMA Union. Predictably, Kadyrov’s kids won t heir matches.
Kadyrov’s political career and personal life are as sinister as they are comic. In January 2015, 12 days after the Charlie
Hebdo magazine shooting that killed 12 people in Paris, Ramzan lead half-a-million Chechens in a march against depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. He condemned public memorials to the victims in France as, “a street show with slogans in support of permissiveness, leading to bloodshed”. The clear implication being that he condones radicalised, religious killing, even if he is an enemy of ISIS.
Despite Kadyrov’s high-f lying, gaudy lifestyle, kidnapping and extortion have never gone out of style in Chechnya. >>
Months before t he alleged campaign of systematic abduction and torture of gay men in Chechnya began, a report by t he Council Of Europe was already warning t hat, “members of the[ Chechen] security forces and law-enforcement bodies still resort to illegal means such as abductions and secret detentions, extrajudicial killings and torture, and t hey continue to enjoy almost complete imp unity ”.
As in many countries where homosexuality is illegal or deeply stigmatised, corrupt police officers have been quietly blackmailing closeted and often married gay men in Chechnya for years. These men may have to endure the occasional beating, but the idea is to keep them paying.
Until recently, Chechnya’s well established network of secret prisons have been reserved for critics of the government, drug addicts, Chechen separatists and Islamic State sympathisers. Imprisoned far from the public eye in squalid conditions, they are reportedly tortured until they confess. Some are allegedly killed. In the case of drug users and suspected jihadis, they are also pressured to reveal their contacts and networks.
But something appears to have changed in recent months.
Russia’s Radio Liberty reported t hat a secret prison for gay men may have been operated in the village of Tsotsi-Yurt by members of the district police as early as December 2016.
As t he report came out on April 1, it was dismissed as an April Fool’s Day joke by Chechen authorities, who claimed that there are no homosexuals in Chechnya. “If t here were any… t hey would have been dealt with by t heir own relatives,” said government spokesman, Alvi Karimov in a sinister reference to t he practice of honour killing.
Kheda Saratova, who heads a local human rights office, repeated a similar claim to a journalist from the New York Times .“I never heard of t hem,” she said. “In my 50 years, I have never seen a gay man. I see f lies, I see mosquitoes, but I have never seen a gay man.” In a separate interview she said, “If relatives kill a homosexual in Chechnya, t hey will not disclose it, and law enforcement agencies will react with understanding.”
Hearing increased reports of homophobic violence in the North Caucasus, the Russian LGBT Network established an emergency hotline for victims seeking refuge – and reports started flooding in.
Two days later, a televised meeting of Islamic leaders in Grozny denounced the reports as “defamation of the Chechen people”. Kadyrov spokesman, Adam Shakhidov labelled the staff of the Russian newspaper that broke the story, Novaya Gazeta “the enemies of our faith and our homeland”. Undeterred, on April 5 >>
>> Novaya Gazeta published graphic accounts from former detainees, including allegations that involvement by the Chechen leadership goes as high as Magomed Daudov, the Speaker of the Chechen Parliament.
According to the victim statements published by Novaya Gazeta, the February arrest of a man with gay porn on his phone was the catalyst for a chain reaction across Chechnya. The victims speak of beatings and electrocutions, of being whipped with rubber hoses, and sleeping on cold stone f loors for weeks at a time.
Meanwhile, their phones are kept switched on and powered so that anyone who texts them or calls can be investigated and potentially entrapped.
Those who are taken have only three ways out – denounce other gay men until their captors are satisfied, pay a ransom for their release (one victim quotes as much as $US10,000), or face being turned over directly to their male relatives for “family justice”.
Tanya Lokshina, the Russia Program Director for international human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) and a senior researcher with the organisation, told DNA that what she was hearing from victims confirmed the reports in Novaya Gazeta and from the Russian LGBT Network. “This appears to be an organised campaign sanctioned by the Chechen leadership and, with regard to the involvement of the Speaker of the Parliament, we received similar information,” Loshina confirms. “[Speaker Daudov] did visit the prison in Argun and he also oversaw the release of detainees to their family members.
“Family members were brought to an illegal detention facilit y where the victims were forced to confess to their relatives about their sexual orientation and then police officials verbally shamed the victims in the presence of their families and then shamed their families for allowing such a thing to stain the honour of their families. It was a ritual of humiliation to encourage honour killings,” says Lokshina.
“These people are not safe. They are caught between t wo fires, the Chechen authorities on the one hand, but they also have their relatives to fear.”
Speaker Of The House, Daudov is alleged to have personally lead some of these verbal shamings of detainees and overseen the handover to male relatives.
In mid-April in a television interview Ramzan Kadyrov slipped up. He named a person who is believed by Novaya Gazeta to have been detained at one of the prisons, and said that the fact that this person is alive proves the camps don’t exist. However, that person’s name was never published by Novaya
Gazeta – so how did Kadyrov come to know it? HRW’s Tanya Loshina believes this was all a performance for the cameras. “The part of the meeting [with Putin] that was released to the
I have never seen a gay man. I see flies, I see mosquitoes, but I have never seen a gay man.” – Kheda Saratova
press was not the conversation they actually had behind closed doors,” she tells DNA. “It’s my strong belief that the Kremlin wanted the issue f lagged as part of the record of the meeting and that, in itself, is a good sign. I have little doubt that they did have a detailed discussion on the issue [when the cameras were gone].”
Russian authorities are, allegedly, investigating events in Chechnya. As a result of the scrutiny being applied to events in Russia and Chechnya, Lokshina, who has been covering events in the region since the start of the Second Chechen War, is hopeful that the Chechen anti-gay purge will come to a halt – as long as the world doesn’t turn away.
“It’s very important that the issue has caught so much public attention and that the Kremlin is getting very strong signals from the international community, but also from some segments of Russian society, that such developments cannot be tolerated,” she tells DNA. “Having petitions on torture in Chechnya signed by so many people is immensely significant and I’m convinced that, if the pressure is maintained, the Kremlin will make sure that the purge stops and is not resumed. But I’m not optimistic of the prospect of an investigation, unfortunately. That’s based on years of experience of seeing no effective investigation into horrific abuses in Chechnya.
“While this purge against gay people stands out as unprecedented, the toolbox that Kadyrov’s security officials have been using is the same that they’ve been using for years against suspected jihadist sympathisers, drug users and critics of the government.
“The methods are all t he same – abductions, detentions, disappearances, torture and, in some cases, extrajudicial executions. The issues t hat made t he headlines as part of t he anti-gay purge are t he same issues t hat Chechens have been struggling with for years – but no one was paying attention,” says Lokshina.
Meanwhile, she says, the governments who have expressed concerns about the treatment of LGBT people in Chechnya need to provide those f leeing Russia with the visas they need to reach safe havens.
“These victims are not safe in Russia because Chechen officials can easily find them there,” Lokshina says. “Even if the purge is stopped and officials stop looking for them, their own family members and religious zealots can find them. As long as those victims remain in Russia they are not safe and all states, as a matter of principle, should welcome them and give them sanctuary. We are not talking about thousands of people here.”
Even if Putin does pressure Kadyrov to end the gay purge, it seems certain that the violation of human rights in Chechnya will continue, effecting the LGBTI community, women, and ethnic and political minorities.
FROM TOP: KHEDA SARATOVA; ONE OF THE GAY CONCENTRATION CAMPS AS IDENTIFIED BY NOVAYA GAZETA; TV NEWS REPORT ON THE GAY PURGE.
VIGIL FOR GAY CHECHNYA PROTESTORS OUTSIDE THE RUSSIAN CONSULATE IN SYDNEY URGE PUTIN TO INTERVENE.