The State Department on Tuesday confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has expressed concern about the ongoing anti-gay crackdown in Chechnya with his Russian counterpart.
The Washington Post in a Sept. 1 article about a transgender Chechen woman who has received asylum in the U.S. noted Tillerson wrote a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
A State Department official on Tuesday told the Blade the letter was sent “earlier in the summer.” The official declined to provide a copy of it.
“We continue to raise our concerns about this situation with Russian authorities,” the official told the Blade. “In a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Secretary Tillerson conveyed U.S. concerns about the credible reports of widespread detentions, torture and other abuses against gay men in Chechnya.”
“The secretary noted the opening of a criminal investigation by the Russian government and an inquiry by the Human Rights Ombudsman, and encouraged swift and independent investigations into these troubling allegations,” added the official. “The secretary urged that any perpetrators of abuses should be held to account under Russian law, and for the release of anyone who remains in detention because of their sexual orientation.”
Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper, in April reported authorities in the semi-autonomous Russian republic in the North Caucuses have arrested more than 100 men because of their sexual orientation since the beginning of the year. At least three of these men reportedly died after their arrest, while others have been beaten and tortured and sent to secret prisons.
Reports indicate Chechen authorities have also begun to target lesbians and trans people.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley earlier this year said the U.S. is “disturbed” by the crackdown. The State Department in April called upon the Russian government to conduct an investigation.
Tillerson in June told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he had not discussed Chechnya with Russian officials. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert in July said the State Department has raised the crackdown in “conversations at the highest levels.”
“Human rights is something that’s very important to us,” Nauert told the Blade during a July 18 press briefing. “We continue to speak about that from this position here at the podium and part of my job is speaking on behalf of Secretary Tillerson and speaking on behalf of this department.”
President Trump has yet to publicly condemn the crackdown.
Canada grants asylum to gay, lesbian Chechens
The Russian LGBT Network, which has helped LGBT Chechens flee their homeland, has expressed skepticism over the Kremlin’s claims it has launched an investigation into the crackdown. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, earlier this summer said during an interview with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” that gay people don’t exist in the republic.
The New York Times on Sunday reported the Canadian government has allowed 22 gay and lesbian Chechens to seek refuge in the country over the last three months as part of a program with Rainbow Railroad, a Toronto-based group that helps LGBT people escape what it describes as “state-sponsored violence.” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin in May in a letter to Tillerson urged the U.S. to grant visas to those who are fleeing anti-gay persecution in Chechnya.
“The U.S. must show leadership in helping people who face such grave threats to their fundamental human rights,” wrote Griffin. “The people fleeing Chechnya are being persecuted because of who they are and who they love, and it is our responsibility to step up and protect them from despotic leaders who seek to harm them.”
The State Department official with whom the Blade spoke on Tuesday said the U.S. “is working with like likeminded countries and partners, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to be part of an international, long-term response that ultimately enables persons at risk to find safe, stable, and durable solutions.”
“The mechanisms at our disposal are not immediate and will take time, but we are looking at any and all options to assist, with an emphasis on those that will bring targeted individuals to safety most swiftly and securely,” added the official.