The US State Department has called on Russia to investigate reports that more than 100 LGBT people have recently been detained, tortured, or murdered in the region of Chechnya.
"We urge the Russian government to conduct an independent and credible investigation into the alleged killings and mass arrests, and hold the perpetrators responsible," a State Department official said in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News.
"We were likewise deeply disturbed by local authorities statements that apparently condone and even incite violence against LGBTI persons," the statement said. "We are very concerned by the widespread discrimination and violence against LGBTI persons in Russia or any society. We call on the Russian government to protect all people from discrimination and violence, and allow the free exercise of the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion or belief.”
The independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on Saturday that a number of LGBT people have been taken into custody by authorities in Chechnya, an autonomous region in Russia run by a strongman whose regime violently suppresses dissent. BuzzFeed News confirmed the account with human rights activists in the country, who say they have direct confirmation of several cases of people who have been detained or tortured over the past few weeks, though the full scope of the detentions has not been documented.
In accounts of the detentions reported by the St. Petersburg-based Russia LGBT Network, which has been running a helpline for LGBT people in Chechnya and helped some people escape the region, detainees said they witnessed people being beaten with hoses, tortured by electric shock, and beaten to death. Their captors also threaten to murder their family members. (The organization said none of the victims it was in contact with felt safe speaking directly to press.)
The Russia LGBT Network's Svetlana Zakharova told BuzzFeed News that international pressure is important to getting a response from Russian authorities.
"We believe that all kinds of international pressure is beneficial now, including diplomatic pressure," Zakharova said. "The main hope is that killings, tortures and kidnappings will stop and will be investigated properly by the responsible authorities."
The Chechen disappearances mark the first major test of the place of LGBT rights as they relate to foreign policy under President Donald Trump. The issue comes just as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that he would visit Moscow next week and as investigations continue into ties between Trump's campaign and Russian officials.
The State Department official declined to comment on the record about whether Tillerson would raise the issue during his visit.
The US's largest LGBT organization, the Human Rights Campaign, sent a letter to Tillerson on Wednesday afternoon calling on him to raise the issue in Moscow. "I therefore write to urge you to make clear to your Russian counterparts that such lawless detentions, arrests, torture and murders are unacceptable and will not be tolerated," wrote HRC President Chad Griffin.
"As you said during your Senate confirmation process, you believe in 'a shared commitment to protect the human rights of all people, no matter who they are or whom they love' and that means standing for universal human rights and fighting for the dignity of every person," Griffin's statement continued. "This is a crucial moment to make it clear that the U.S. will indeed 'work aggressively to advance human rights for everyone,' as you have said."
State Department staff immediately expressed concern about the situation, said Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch, who said she was contacted by officials of the US embassy in Moscow shortly after she published an account of the detentions on the organization's website.
Mark Bromley of the Council for Global Equality, which advocates for LGBT rights in US diplomacy, was the first sign that the Trump administration may support this work.
"I’m pleasantly surprised by such a strong statement from the State Department," Bromley said. "We know that career professionals at all levels and in embassy have continued to follow these issues and engage on them, but we’ve been waiting for clear signals from political levels... This statement wouldn’t have been issued wouldn’t have been issued without some level of clearance from political levels."
The full State Department statement can be read below:
We are aware of troubling reports that local authorities in the Republic of Chechnya have arrested or detained more than 100 men, as well as reports that three of those detained were killed. We condemn violence against any individuals based on their sexual orientation or any other basis. We urge the Russian government to conduct an independent and credible investigation into the alleged killings and mass arrests, and hold the perpetrators responsible. We were likewise deeply disturbed by local authorities statements that apparently condone and even incite violence against LGBTI persons.
We are very concerned by the widespread discrimination and violence against LGBTI persons in Russia or any society. We call on the Russian government to protect all people from discrimination and violence, and allow the free exercise of the freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and religion or belief.
Jane Lytvynenko contributed to this report from Toronto.