Canadians take leading role in helping gay men escape Chechnya

Click to play video: 'The dangerous fight for gay rights in Russia' The dangerous fight for gay rights in Russia
From intimidation and arrests to death threats, Jeff Semple is in Moscow to look at what gay activists face and explains how a Canadian charity is helping – May 15, 2017

A Canadian charity is taking a leading role in helping gay men escape the ultra-conservative Russian republic of Chechnya.

Reports first emerged last month that more than 100 Chechen men suspected of being gay were being detained and tortured in concentration camps. At least three have reportedly been killed.

Toronto-based human rights organization Rainbow Railroad is now working with Russian LGBT groups to help gay men in Chechnya access secret safe houses elsewhere in Russia.

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“These are individuals who are displaced, have just come through a traumatic situation and don’t know where to turn to next,” said Rainbow Road executive director Kimahli Powell.

Since 2006, his organization has helped LGBT people around the world escape countries where they’re at risk.

More than 40 gay men have made it out of Chechnya in the past month, and two have been transferred out of Russia to other countries deemed to be safe.

“There are still a lot of concerns about whether they’re completely safe in Russia. Russia has a history of abuses against civil society and LGBT individuals,” Powell said.

Last week, a small group of Russian activists marched on the Moscow prosecutor’s office carrying a petition with two million signatures, calling on the Kremlin to investigate the claims of a violent crackdown on gay men in Chechnya.

But they were arrested for protesting without permission before they could deliver the petition.

“They (arrested) us for going with the boxes, but they do not do anything with the people who kill other people,” said activist Aleksandra Alekseeva.

READ MORE: Canada should offer emergency visas to gay men from Chechnya: LGBT group

Hundreds of gay couples are also taking their protest online, by posting selfies of themselves kissing with the hashtag #kiss4lgbtqrights and tagging the Kremlin.

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Novaya Gazeta, the Russian newspaper that first broke the Chechen LGBT story, knows better than most the risks of reporting in Russia.

Six of its journalists have been murdered since 2001. But the paper’s deputy editor says even they were shocked by the sheer volume of death threats they received.

“Our lead reporter is now in hiding,” says Olga Bobrova.

“People in Canada need to understand that when it comes to LGBT rights, Chechnya is medieval.”

In response to the story, the Chechen government declared the Novaya Gazeta journalists to be “enemies” of the predominantly-Muslim republic.

The press secretary for the head of the Chechen Republic told Global News the allegations could not be true because there are no gay people in Chechnya.

“There is not, never has been and never will be homosexuality here,” Alvi Karimov said. “There are a lot of Chechens living in Canada, and they’re not gay either. But the Canadian government and others are spreading these false claims without facts.”

READ MORE: Londoners protest gay ‘concentration camps,’ anti-LGBTQ violence in Chechnya

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an inquiry into the allegations of LGBT abuse in Chechnya on May 5.

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The Russian LGBT Network said it hopes the inquiry will result in criminal charges and witness protection for the victims, but they worry the Kremlin is simply buying time until the world’s attention moves on.

“Only after the big international scandal happened, it became obvious that the Kremlin cannot deny it,” says Igor Kochetkov, the former chairperson of the Russian LGBT Network.

“We should know by the end of May if they’re serious. Then we will determine how to respond.”

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