Members of Congress are pleading with President Donald Trump to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin over violence against LGBT people in Chechnya, following reports of detentions, kidnappings and torture dating back to April.
"When the President speaks out against human rights atrocities, or chooses to stay silent, the world pays attention," says a letter to the White House signed by 53 members of Congress.
The effort, which includes fifty-two Democrats, is being led by Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island; one Republican, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, signed onto the letter.
While three people were reportedly killed in the recent violence, survivors have reported being abducted and subjected to torture, including electro-shocks and beatings by authorities.
"The lives of hundreds of Chechens are at stake," the lawmakers say, "and it is vital that the U.S. uses its full leverage to pressure Russian authorities to end these atrocities, conduct a fair and open investigation and prosecution of these crimes, and swiftly work to provide a safe haven for the marginalized."
Russian media outlets started reporting in April that Chechen officials were behind the disappearance of more than 100 gay men from the semi-autonomous, mostly Muslim, region of Russia.
A spokesman for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov denied the reports at the time, reportedly contending that there were no LGBT people in the region to be kidnapped: “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic.”
Despite the purported nonexistence of LGBT people, the spokesman also suggested that an "honor killing" could rid relatives of LGBT people of their shame.
This month, the Russia LGBT Network, which is working to evacuate people from the area, told BuzzFeed News the organization has gotten around 10 calls reporting new detentions since Ramadan ended on June 24.
Members of Congress tell Trump in their letter that the Russian government's position conflicts with itself, "on the one hand denying that any atrocities are taking place, while also recommending that victims report grievances to the very local authorities accused of carrying out the attacks. Russia also prematurely ended an investigation with the claim that the multiple reports have little credence."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on June 14 that he agreed the “Russian government must protect the lives and safety of all its citizens, including the LGBT community." But lawmakers say they're concerned the issue has not been raised by senior US officials directly with Putin or Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
"As Members of Congress dedicated to the promotion of fundamental human rights across the globe," the lawmakers tell Trump, "we urge you to immediately publicly condemn the ongoing abuses of LGBT and perceived to be LGBT individuals in Chechnya, and to raise this issue at the highest levels with members of the Russian government."