‘Eyes on Chechnya’ protest targets Russian ambassador

By : Chris Johnson of the Washington Blade, courtesy of the National Gay Media Association
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Protesters gathered before the D.C. residence of the Russian ambassador to the United States on Tuesday to call on Russia to investigate reports of anti-gay abuses and concentration camps in Chechnya and bring them to an end.

An estimated 75 people gathered before the residence of Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in a demonstration organized by the Human Rights Campaign intended to highlight the arrests and detentions of gay and bisexual men in the semi-autonomous Republic.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, spoke at the “Eyes on Chechnya” demonstration and called on the Russian government to take the lead to end the reported abuses.

“Instead of rounding up gay men, Russia must pressure Chechnya to arrest the real criminals, the torturers, the jailers and the executioners,” Griffin said.

Griffin said he also carried a message for the U.S. government: Let the victims of the reported abuses seek asylum in the United States. On the day before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was set to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Griffin said the Trump official must raise the issue with his Russian counterpart.

“He must show the same leadership that German Chancellor Merkel did when she met with Putin just last week,” Griffin said, referencing a meeting in which Merkel publicly raised the issue of anti-gay abuses with the Russian leader.

The demonstration was the result of ongoing concern over reports from Chechnya that local authorities have arrested more than 100 gay men and sent them to secret prisons for torture. At least four men have reportedly died as a result.

Chechnya is led by Ramzan Kadyrov, who has denied the atrocities are happnening by asserting gay people don’t exist there. British Minister of state for the Foreign Office Sir Alan Duncan said on the floor of parliament he was told of alleged plans in Chechnya to “eliminate” the country’s gay community by the start of Ramadan, which begins May 26.

Rob Berschinski, senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First, said the reported attacks on gay men are “part and parcel of the Russian government’s program of repression.”

“From a propaganda law that targets members of the LGBT community and their allies, to an NGO law that says anyone critical of the Putin regime is an enemy of the state to invasions of Russian neighbors to support for the brutal Assad regime in Syria, to action at the United Nations hoping to tear down an international system based around human rights and international law, our eyes are on Russia,” Berschinski said.

At the protest, participants chanted, “Stop the Violence…Stop the Hate…Russia Must Investigate.” One sign read, “Say Something Don! Pooty Got Your Tongue!” a reference to Trump’s suspected ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom intelligence agencies said assisted the president’s election efforts with illegal hacking.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley has spoken out against the atrocities, but President Trump himself and Tillerson have said nothing. (For that matter, mainstream media reporters haven’t asked Trump about the matter even though he has participated in several interviews with the press.) The Washington Blade has repeatedly sought comment from the White House on the atrocities.

The protest concluded just minutes before news broke that President Trump had terminated FBI Director James Comey, who was investigating potential Trump collusion with Russia during the 2016 presidential election.

Jeremy Pittman, deputy field director for the Human Rights Campaign, said the process by which gay people in Chechnya could seek asylum in the United States starts with the U.S. government signaling they’re welcome to come here, but that hasn’t happened yet.

“What we understand is happening now is that folks who are trying to get out need the U.S. government to say they are welcome to come here,” Pittman said. “That’s a step that speeds things along a lot faster.”

Pittman said Russian authorities may seek to reclaim the persecuted gay men if they escape to nearby countries, which is why U.S. asylum for them is important.

“The Chechnen families that are trying to track them down won’t go that far,” Pittman said. “But the farther the refugees can get from Russia, the safer they are, and so I think they definitely want to get to the United States.”

The Blade has placed a request with the State Department seeking comment on the status of allowing persecuted gay men in Chechnya to come to the United States.

Ellen Kahn, a 54-year-old lesbian resident of Silver Silver, Md., was at the demonstration and said she came to encourage greater action from the Trump administration on the reported hostilities.

“Given the atrocities in Chechnya, and the silence of our administration — with the very small exception of Nikki Haley mentioning it — we have to push our government to speak up,” she said. “This is like when I think about our friends dying of AIDS very early in the epidemic 30 years ago and Ronald Reagan not saying a word, and we had to take to the streets. To me, this is the same urgency.”

The Blade has placed a request with the Russian embassy seeking comment on the protest.

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