Hello, Igor! Can you give us an update on your efforts to evacuate the persecuted LGBT people from the Chechen Republic?
Now we continue our efforts with the evacuation, which began in early April. Right now, we provide assistance to 50 people. Among those 50 men, there are men who were thrown into prison and tortured there, as well as those for whom the Chechen security searched for. There are also several family members of these men, whom we are helping as well because the overall situation is dangerous for them. As of today, we received calls for assistance from 100 people and we can not predict how much more will be there. This largely depends on the situation in the Chechen Republic, which is still quite uncertain. We do not understand how it will develop. We know that today the pressure on the relatives of those men, who left the Republic has increased. Perhaps we will have to continue our evacuation operation for some indefinite time.
In your previous interview, you’ve mentioned that your team experienced certain issues with obtaining visas for the refugees for them to find sanctuary outside Russia. How is this process going?
Yes, fortunately, the situation is developing positively. 12 people have already left. They went to different countries, we prefer not to name these countries for the safety reasons. There are good prospects and, I think, we will resolve this issue soon.
Generally speaking, the public discussion circulates around men who suffered persecution in the Chechen Republic. What can you say about lesbian women and women in Chechnya in general? What is the position of transgender people in the Republic?
We work with gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender people who live in the North Caucasus. We’ve been doing this work for several months already. This work didn’t start from the 1st of April when the evacuation of homosexual men began. We have received and continue to receive messages from various people who live in the North Caucasus, including women. These are both lesbians and transgender women. We had to help these people to leave the Republic. This work is going on, it didn’t stop and it will continue. We are currently looking for an opportunity to help several people. The media often asks the following question: why do you talk only about gay men, why don’t you talk about women. But we are not silent about women. We now talk about gay men precisely in relation to a specific situation. Indeed, men were unlawfully detained and tortured.
Fortunately, there is no such information about women. But we’re talking about this only within the framework of this campaign. This does not mean that women have an excellent position in Chechnya or in any other republics of the North Caucasus. Their position is complicated, as they are subjected to double discrimination. They are discriminated against because they are women in the Caucasus, they live within traditional notions of the dependent, subordinate position of women. And they are discriminated against because they are lesbians or transsexual women. In our work with them, we face two typical situations. The first is typical for lesbians and occurs when relatives find out about woman’s sexuality and force this woman to get married. There were also murder threats, and in these cases, we are looking for opportunities to help these women to leave the Republic. Similarly, we find a safe place where we can relocate and figure out how we can assist her with leaving Russia. With transsexual women, the situation is no less severe. The neo-traditions that are being cultivated by the authorities in the Northern Caucasus, considered gender transition to be a disgrace, a shame for the family. Transsexual women and transsexual men are in mortal danger. We had cases when we helped such people to leave the Chechen Republic.
What kind of people can the Russian LGBT Network help with evacuation in general?
Now I will discuss our emergency rescue program that exists for more than two years. As part of this program, we offer assistance to people who are either persecuted for homophobic or transphobic reasons and to LGBT activists who are harassed because of their activities. We offer a different kind of help. It can be, for example, financial support when activists have to pay fines for participation in public actions. It can be an emergency evacuation. As a rule, a mandatory condition for receiving assistance through a program is the willingness of the person in question to defend their rights in court. At the same time, we understand that in a situation with the North Caucasus it is by no means possible. Therefore, we are ready to consider exceptions — for example, within the framework of the situation in the North Caucasus we certainly do not insist that a person goes to court and seeks restoration of their rights. In each case, this is decided individually: we discuss the real situation and, accordingly, make a decision.
There is one important circumstance that one should have in mind. We can not start doing anything, until the person, who was affected by discrimination, does not address us directly. Because it is very difficult to decide for others how to help them. If one has friends who need such help, for example, they need evacuation, need urgent legal assistance, need urgent financial assistance, please tell them about this program. Direct them to our website, direct them to our groups on social media — Facebook or Vkontakte. so they can consider the possibility of reaching out to us. Only the person themselves can decide what help they need. Therefore, we do not consider applications from third parties. We always — when we are told that a person needs help — we ask that this person should be given information so they can decide whether to seek assistance from us or not.
Thanks, Igor. Let's now talk about what was in the media in the past few week. The publication of the Human Right Watch report on the persecution of the LGBT citizens from the Chechen Republic caused a great response, including the backlash from the Chechen authorities. Can we say that the first official accusations were made?
Well, Human Rights Watch is a non-governmental organization. The Russian LGBT Network has the same status. In this regard, our statuses do not differ. Therefore, we cannot call these reports “official accusations”. This is a position, a research study of a non-governmental American organization. The organization is very respected, with a great history that explores the human rights situation around the world - not just in Russia. And I can say in connection with this report that all the facts stated in this report are reliable. We confirm them. We helped our colleagues from Human Rights Watch to work on this report. By the way, we are also preparing our report, a more detailed one. I think it will be ready by the end of June and in the beginning of July, we plan to present it in Russia.
Let's talk about the reaction of the Russian authorities to this situation. Last week there was a meeting between the newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron and the Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the press conference, Macron said that he and Putin had agreed to take control of the situation in Chechnya. What do you make of it?
This is an interesting statement, of course. What I make of it is the following: if they agreed to take control of the situation only in Versailles, then until now this situation was not under the control of the Russian authorities. This is very strange and this, of course, is not true. We know that the Investigative Committee has been conducting some preliminary investigation. We know that the criminal case has not yet been instituted. And if there is no criminal case, then there is no trial. That being said, I can conclude that no serious actions to investigate this crime can not be taken. Another question that troubles me is how will they control this? There is the Code of Criminal Procedure, where it is very clearly written how one should investigate criminal offenses, in particular, how to investigate crimes against humanity. And there are enough grounds to start a criminal case.. At a minimum, the investigative bodies were given lists of those, who were killed. If there are dead people — what kind of preliminary investigative procedures should there be? If there are these lists of those, who were murdered, there is a need to initiate a case and carry out all the investigative actions that should be carried out as part of the criminal investigation. Right now this is not happening.
Tatyana Moskal’kova, the Human Rights Ombudswoman of the Russian Federation, in her comment to the Interfax news agency said that she had not yet received a single statement from the victims. What do you think of it?
To clarify: Moskal’kova said that she has offered the state protection to the victims, and nobody applied for this state protection. Once again — we have the Code of Criminal Procedure and it states exactly how criminal offenses should be investigated. Also, it states under which circumstances one receives state protection in the criminal process. There is no mentioning of the Human Rights Ombudsperson in the Code of Criminal Procedure. The Law on the Human Rights Ombudsperson also does not say that she can offer state protection and that she can carry out any investigative procedures. She can — she had to do it and eventually she did — draw the attention of the authorities that there is a need to verify this information. Not only Macron and Merkel, but the Human Rights Ombudswoman in the Russian Federation drew the president's attention to the fact that the situation needs to be taken under control and that there is a need to conduct an investigation. But it is odd to say that the victims should apply for state protection of Moskal’kova. She doesn’t have such powers. Therefore, if indeed Moskal’kova wants to somehow help in this matter, I think now she must insist on instituting criminal proceedings.
At the moment, how do you expect the situation in the Chechen Republic to develop?
As for what we will do next, we want to give a detailed assessment of how the investigation is conducted. Particularly, we want to comment how it is not being carried out in a proper way. Because we do not want the Russian authorities — anyone from the Russian authorities — to mislead people about the fact that there is some kind of state protection for someone. No protection is available today. Only the participants of the criminal proceedings can obtain state protection. When there is no criminal case — there are no criminal proceedings. Accordingly, at the moment no one can receive protection. People must understand this.In addition, we continue, as I said, the evacuation. We continue to insist and take actions to ensure that the investigation of this crime is under official international control. In particular, we will work for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to appoint a special rapporteur on this topic, and we, in particular, will participate in the PACE session on this issue at the end of June.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your plans for international advocacy?
Well, PACE session is already quite a lot. And if we get the result we expect, this will be a very important step in advancing this investigation. In addition, we meet with representatives of individual countries on a regular basis — I recently had a meeting with the German Foreign Minister. We also discussed this situation and discussed that probably the European Union should find some international mechanisms to influence the Russian authorities. This needs to be done so that they do not abandon this matter so that they do not try to hide this situation under the carpet, figuratively speaking. This investigation needs to be effective, transparent, and the perpetrators should be held accountable.
Thank you very much for the interview, Igor!