“We must not give in to the fascist inside us”: Igor Kochetkov on the situation in the Chechen Republic

Hello, Igor. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the world has its eyes on Chechnya right now. How did you find out about the current events?
We learned about mass detentions, tortures, and homicide of homosexual men in Chechnya in mid-March. We received anonymous messages on this matter. We initially could not verify this information, because those people who wrote to us this refused to disclose who they were. But, almost immediately we realized that similar information reached the journalists and the human rights defenders who work with the North Caucasus region. We have joined our efforts. Around the 20th of March, it became clear that this information can be confirmed with different sources. We decided to make this information public: first of all, this will save lives of people. Secondly, this will prompt the authorities to conduct an investigation.

Representatives of the Chechen Republic have repeatedly stated that this is a mass falsification. What can you say about this?
You know, since I myself communicated with dozens of people who have confirmed this information to me — and I mean the people who are victims of this terrible crime — for me there is no doubt that all of this is true. I have no doubts. As for the statements of the representatives of the Chechen Republic. We have to understand that these statements come from either the authorities of the Chechen Republic or form the people who depend on them. In this story, the authorities of the Chechen Republic are the suspects. We suspect that they have committed crimes against humanity. It is obvious that they will deny all of it. We must demand an investigation. Over the course of this investigation, representatives of the Chechen authorities will express their opinion on the matter and present the necessary evidence. But to date, there is more than enough evidence that tells us all this is true.

Thank you. Can you speak to us about the exact numbers: how many people were detained, how many people were killed, how many people were evacuated? Do you have any precise information?
We can talk about this only based on the data that comes from the people we evacuated, from the people who went through the prisons. They say that dozens of people were with them. And it was not one person, and all of them were in different places, which means that we can talk about hundreds of people who have gone through detentions. And those people whom we are helping now, all of them were detained during the so-called first wave: from the end of December 2016 through February 2017. And then there was the second wave, which began in mid-March. And now we can say that hundreds of people were detained during the first wave. And as it continued it is still difficult to say how many people were detained in March-April. But we are talking about hundreds of people. And a number of circumstances point to that. Since we have established the hotline, more than 80 people applied for help. We were able to evacuate more than 40 and continue to help them. But we must bear in mind that these people, who turned to us, are the most courageous of all. Those who are not afraid to admit that they are gay. They have all the reason to fear both the authorities' and their own relatives. And that's why only the most courageous of them have come out to us.  If there are 80 brave people, you yourself understand what the real scope of the crisis is.

So what exactly happens with those people? A person applies for help through the Russian LGBT Network and what happens next? What does the Network do to help people?
First of all, we try to find out what happened to this person, why is he afraid for his life, for his safety, why he turned to us. And here we are dealing with two possible cases. First of all, there are people who were released from prison, who went through detentions and tortures, and now they are fleeing from both the authorities and their own relatives. This is one option. Another type of calls we receive is from people, whose friends and acquaintances were detained. Those, who know that their phone numbers were in the contacts of the detainees. This automatically means that they are in danger. And we already had situations when we were evacuating people who feared that the authorities would come after them. And indeed, literally, the next day, two days after we evacuated them, the authorities came to get them. These are two of the options. What we offer. We offer relocation to a safer space. We secure housing. If people went through tortures it is obvious that they need medical help. Even those who did not — they need psychological help, they need a psychologist. Often, people who fled Chechnya need the basics. Some of them literally left with a small backpack or with what they managed to grab. They need basic things, they need financial support. In addition, we are well aware that for all of these people it is not safe to stay in Russia. Our extremely important objective is to organize their departure abroad. Some people do not, for example, have passports. We also help with that. Some people have problems with other personal documents. We solve all these issues as well. And, finally, we have to negotiate with diplomatic missions the possibilities of relocating them abroad, of getting visas for those people. As it turned out, this is a very difficult question. It is obvious that these people will apply for political asylum, and the embassies of the EU and the North American countries have very clear guidelines: if they understand that a person will ask for asylum, then, as a rule, they do not grant them with visas. They are afraid of the influx of refugees. In this situation, they are afraid of 40 people. If every EU country accepts at least two or three people, the problem would have been solved. But the existing bureaucratic procedures do not allow this. Ironically, the EU countries, Canada and the United States have no special procedures that would allow them to act in a situation of a humanitarian crisis. When crimes against humanity occurring in the territory of a country where they have diplomatic representation, the diplomats do not know what to do. And as we know, this is not the first crime against humanity in world’s history. Nevertheless, this process is underway and we have already begun to evacuate people abroad. I hope that this will over soon.

As you’ve already told us, it is complicated to get visa support for the Chechen refugees. What are the other complications that your organization faces as you work with this crisis?
The first problem that immediately emerged is the problem of trust. I have already said that we work with people, who went through tortures, through humiliation, people who are deeply scared and scared. It's natural that they do not trust anyone in this situation. They are afraid of provocations, of set-ups, and therefore we have to convince them that we can be trusted, that working with us is really safe. The second problem is security. Security of those people, whom we help, and our own as well. We must take care of ourselves. We have to develop certain security protocols, certain rules, of which, of course, I cannot talk. There is also a moral question. We need to cope with the information we get. Victims very often tell us horrid things they went through. Obviously, people who work with them, also receive various kinds of help, including, but psychological help.

Do you think that current events in Chechnya changes Russian society? What these events tell us about contemporary Russian society?
I would say it like this: in the context of these events, I began to think about Russian society a little worse than I thought about it before. Both the media and Russian citizens refer to what is happening as, at best, yet another crime that happened in the North Caucasus. In fact, it is an unprecedented crime against humanity on the territory of Europe since the Nazi Germany. The last time people were so massively and so brutally persecuted and prosecuted based on their sexual orientation only in Nazi Germany. After that, there were no such precedents. And to my great disappointment, the Russian society today does not even ask a question how did we even got here? What happened to us is if such monstrous events are taking place in our country, and we decide not to ignore it. We learned about this quite by accident, thanks to the work of the human rights organizations. How is this possible? When the information appeared in Novaya Gazeta, why the first reaction of the society was: it is not true. I feel that people do not want to believe, do not want to see this reality, it is too terrible for them. We must have a degree of courage to admit to ourselves that this is really happening. And in this situation, there can be no questions about where is evidence the. Because we are dealing with a crime against humanity, which is organized and carried out by the authorities. They have all the resources. They have weaponry, they have prisons, they have control over the media. They have an ability to exert pressure on the relatives of the victims. They have a general ability to put pressure on the whole population, stripping away their rights to discuss what is happening in the republic they live in. In these circumstances to ask us about legally recorded evidence is cynical, unscrupulous, and immoral. The same thing happened in Nazi Germany. When reports on Nazi concentration camps began to appear in the Western press, saying what is actually happening there, everyone said, "where is your evidence?" All of this is not true. And the representatives of Nazi Germany said — all this just slanders the Third Reich. What we hear today from representatives of the Chechen authorities and from representatives of the federal authorities reminds me of that. They say that all of this is slander, an attempt to denigrate our bright image. What happens in Chechnya is a crime against humanity. The peculiarity of such crimes is that legally recorded evidence appears either when this crime is completed — when everyone has been killed — or when it is interrupted. When people take measures to prevent this crime. In order for this crime to be terminated, society needs to have a corresponding reaction. There is no such reaction yet. This suggests that our society is insensitive to these horrible things. It is dangerous It worries me a lot.

Igor, do you believe that Russian authorities will carry out an effective investigation of what has been happening in Chechnya?
Well, I can say that it is their duty because they are the state authorities. If they claim their legitimacy, if they have the ability to ensure the safety of citizens, if they expect the citizens to trust them, they must do it.

So you think that they will do it?
I can say that they must do it. And we will follow it very closely. And if this is not done in a just and transparent way, then international structures should carry this investigation out. We will also work in these directions.

Could you please tell us more about the role that the international community played in this situation?
Again, I would draw a line here. I would distinguish between the reaction of the state authorities, including the Western ones, and the public reaction, the reaction of free media, the reaction of the general public in Europe and North America. And not only there — just recently we discussed that articles on this topic were published in China and Japan. I must say, that the public reaction was absolutely adequate. Instead of asking "where is your evidence?" they began to call for Russian authorities to show evidence that this is not happening. If the Russian authorities can not provide such evidence, then we need to believe the human rights activists and the journalists. A whole social movement emerged to demand a fair and transparent investigation. A movement to assist to refugees emerged right after the first testimonies hit the media. These movements pose questions for the Russian authorities, they demand a fair investigation, they stage protests in front of the Russian embassies. There is worldwide willingness to help. We receive messages from all over the world: people are ready to receive refugees, people donate money to help refugees. It is very inspiring, it brings back the belief in humanity. This is one side of a coin. On the other hand, there is a reaction from the governments of the countries. First, there have been numerous statements — from the United States, from the EU countries — with condemnation of what is happening, with the demand for an investigation. All this is wonderful. But apart from these statements, we need actions. There have been very few actions so far. Let's talk about the visas issue. As of today, there are 27 countries in the European Union. Out of 27, only one country granted visas for the refugees. Two more countries in Europe consider doing the same. I hope that there will be a positive outcome in the nearest future. We are discussing this with one more country in North America and this is not the United States. I believe that there has been very little action on the part of foreign states. This suggests that the world, unfortunately, has not learned anything from the lessons of the Holocaust, from the lessons of the Second World War, from the lessons of fascism. We constantly say "never again," but we see that it can happen again. Similar to what was happening in Nazi Germany, something like what is happening today in Chechnya can happen at any time in any part of the world. Those citizens of free countries who think that democracy exists — they should not be enticed. People can always be intimidated, they can be deceived, they can be given an image of the enemy. And we are not ready for this.

What can we do to be ready? What should we do to prevent this from happening in the future?
People should understand that it is everyone's responsibility to ensure that this does not happen again. And each one of us must gain personal courage so that when we receive such information we do not ask for evidence from the victims or form those who represent these victims. This courage is needed to address the governments and to demand evidence from them. The evidence that this is not happening. The state can not have a presumption of innocence. Lawyers will probably disagree with me on this matter, but I am convinced of this. The state is guilty by definition if it is being accused of violations of human rights. It must prove that it does not violate human rights. For this to happen we must not be afraid to ask uncomfortable questions, we must not be afraid to reach out to the victims, whoever they are. We must remember how easy it is to deceive us, how easy it is to scare us, with Muslims, Chechens, gays. The capacity of modern media to create an image of an enemy is immense. And then we must not give in to the fascist inside us.

Thank you, Igor! I want to ask the last question. Recently, a lot of publications appear in the media discussing the funding that the Russian LGBT network received from around the world. Can you comment on that?
Yes, we received generous financial support. We are very grateful to all people, all organizations around the world who donated money to the cause. We receive donations from Russian citizens as well. We are grateful to all people around the world for responding to this trouble and for donating money. We received around USD 170,000 from organizations that collected money on our behalf and 26 thousand dollars in private donations. We published the names of these organizations on our website. But are also aware that there are a lot of fundraising activities going on and we can not answer for all of them, even if a fundraising campaign has our name on it. We have spent around USD 70,000 already: on housing, on medical and psychological assistance for the refugees, we covered relocation and travel costs as well. We use some of these funds to ensure our own security. We need to think about that as well, otherwise, if we are not safe, we will not be able to help others.

Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think no. But if someone has more questions, you can email them to us. This is not the last time that we discuss these issues.


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