Who is Ramzan Kady­rov, the dic­ta­tor be­hind Europe’s first con­cen­tra­tion camps for gays since World War II?

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT #209 -

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.


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.



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