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Anti-gay men purges in Chechnya

Dirk Schlegel, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

Introduction

Torture in post-Soviet states has a long history. Since the beginning of 2017, the world public has known that in Chechnya, homo – or bisexual men were captured as part of so-called purges, isolated and tortured to acquire information and get blackmailed. Many of them do not survive the ordeal or are murdered by their families after returning due to the violation of family honor. However, the purges are not only conducted on men who identify them as gay or bisexual – men already become targets if the state doubts the sexuality of the men. In contrast, presumed lesbian women are not targeted as much by the authorities (Kazhov-Cassia, 2017, n.p.).

The second wave of these purges was reported in 2019. Chechnya is a conservative and traditional country where senior Chechen officials empower the public to carry out so-called honor killings of gay and bisexual men.

Nevertheless, Chechen authorities deny the existence of anti-gay purges. As Walker (2017) reported, Alvi Karimov, the spokesperson for Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, describes it as “absolute lies and disinformation” (n.p.). According to the authorities, there are no gay people in Chechnya: “You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic” and “If there were such people in Chechnya, the law-enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning”  (ibid., n.p). A link to the above-mentioned honor killings can be seen here.

However, Chechnya is strongly characterized by conservative and patriarchal values, hence homosexuality violates the traditional social order (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, 2019, p.3). Moreover, Chechen society is only formally bound by Russian law, but de facto common law and Islamic law apply. Thus, homosexuality is often seen as a disease or provocation and is considered a disgrace for the entire family, ultimately disrespecting the family honor (ibid.). Therefore, the president’s statements must be viewed critically.

This entry deals with the violent practices of torture in Chechnya from a general perspective. I will highlight the practices of torture against presumed homosexual men since 2017 in detail, reflecting on the locations, the contexts and the artifacts used.

Torture

Torture is a practice of violence. Görling (2013) explains that torture is directly linked to the vulnerability of the human body, soul and dignity. Therefore, knowledge of the vulnerability of the human body is crucial: torture inflicts extreme pain and suffering on the body and soul. Torture can be used for the following purposes: acquiring information, getting confessions, punishment, intimidation, coercion, and discrimination. In all cases, one significant goal is to harm psychologically.

Although torture is prohibited worldwide by the United Nations Convention (more than 170 countries have ratified the convention so far), it is practiced in most parts of the world – even in democratically organized states. The consequences of torture, in addition to physical and psychological damage, are severe traumatization, the impairment of social relationships, and a general dissociation from the external world. Moreover, torture follows a social staging and has a dramaturgy. The analysis can be done on three levels: the victim, the perpetrator, and society. The crossing of body boundaries in the form of penetration can be transgressive and arousing for the perpetrators (ibid., p.126).

Brief history of torture in Chechnya

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 created the Russian Federation, whose federal territories included the North Caucasus. Although Chechnya sought to declare independence in 1991, these efforts were defeated in the two Chechen Wars (1994-1996 and 1999-2001). The current focus of conflict in the North Caucasus continues to be Chechnya, which makes claims for border changes and territorial exchanges with neighboring areas.

Sunni Islam has a strong influence on social life and identities. As already mentioned, Chechen society is very traditional: patriarchy, oppression of dissenters, honor killings and torture are ubiquitous (Heller, 2020; Wikipedia, 2021a).

Figure 1: Map of North Caucasus Region, Source: Wikipedia

Human Rights Watch (2000) shows that torture is not a new phenomenon in Chechnya. During the first and second Chechen wars, purges were carried out by the Russian armed forces, and thousands of Chechens were held in detention centers. Like the anti-homosexual purges briefly described earlier, the mere suspicion of being rebellious was enough to get caught. Thousands of people were rounded up, taken to police stations for interrogation, and later transported to one of at least seven known detention centers for so-called purges. In their actions, soldiers often wore anonymous uniforms or were masked, and the torture was even worse at night than during the day. Many people died or disappeared, and release to family or relatives depended in most cases on the payment of bribes (ibid.).

These experiences are still deeply embedded in the collective memory. The reported practices are:

  • humiliation games
  • beatings with hands, fists, and batons
  • rapes
  • use of electric shocks
  • use of teargas
  • sodomizing with batons
  • beatings to the genitals and to the soles of the feet
  • forced nudity 

Chechen society – shame and honor in Chechnya

Cozort (2011) emphasises that Chechen (Vainakh) society and culture have faced conflict and violence for centuries. Historically, the societies of the North Caucasus, and consequently Chechnya, were characterized by a diverse clan culture, which formed the foundation of social structures. Moreover, clan affiliations have a massive impact on individual and social life even today. However, the conception of clans was always to be understood as a process and is therefore subject to change. Clans are, therefore, still to be perceived as dynamic formations that fulfill identity-forming, society-shaping, and action-guiding functions (ibid., p.10). Hence it can be concluded that Chechen society members are not primarily shaped through values like self-determination since it is more akin to so-called individualistic societies.

Furthermore, shame is pervasive in Chechen society, which can extend to the entire family. As already mentioned, honor, including family honor, is crucial in society. It is associated with bravery, courage, and the role of a strong hero. Each teip has an ethical (external rules) and moral (individual principles) honor code.

Above all, the so-called Nokchalla structures the life of almost the entire society as a code of conduct, with rules and norms for behavior, for example, honor and masculinity. Nokhchalla has

guided Chechen society for centuries, and misconduct get punished. A man who fully follows Nokhchalla is a man with yah, a good and strong Chechen man. In contrast, a man without yah is considered no man at all. An example of the image of the firm and heroic Chechen man is Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen president, who presents himself in this way on social media such as Instagram.

Chechnya converted to Islam between the 16th and 19th centuries, and today the vast majority follow Sunni Islam (Wikipedia, 2021a). There is a significant connection between “Islam and the repression of homosexuality” (Scicchitano, 2019, p.6). Chechen society is also heavily built on patriarchy, placing masculinity far ahead of femininity. Therefore, homosexuality threatens the foundation of society and its gender order. Homosexuality is considered unethical, as a violation of purity and (religious) tradition, and of what it means to be a true Chechen man (ibid.). Gays are considered not true Chechen and inhuman (ibid.). Hence, homosexuality is regarded as a sin that can only be washed clean through blood – through honor killings and purges to cleanse society (ibid.). These honor killings are based on the ancient Chechen tradition of blood feuds (Cozort, 2019).

Anti-gay purges in Chechnya

Two waves of purges have been reported, the first in 2017 (Kondakov, 2019) and the second in 2019 (Human Rights Watch, 2019). However, other waves may have occurred before and after these years. In April 2017, it was first reported that more than 100 men were detained in two unofficial detention centers in Argun and Tsotsi-Yurt, and at least three men were killed. The men were arrested on various charges, including drug abuse, and their smartphones were examined to find a list of suspected gay men. They were then taken to detention centers, where they were tortured with beatings and electric shocks to get them to name other suspected gay men. Blackmail and further investigation ensued. The men were held in the centers for a week to several months. After this time, the survivors were handed over to their families, and the families were instructed to commit honor killings to get rid of the shame (ibid.).

The documentary Welcome to Chechnya (2020) shows: The situation of LGBT* women is similar to that of men. Women are mostly locked up at home, mistreated, and honor killings also occur. Escaping Chechnya is even more difficult, as women are not allowed to travel alone. In one case, a woman whose father worked for the government was forced to have sex with her uncle to keep her secret that she was a lesbian. Ten presumed lesbian or bisexual women and two trans women have been detained in detention centers (De Bruyn, 2018, p.10). LGBT* women are forced into marriage, and so-called corrective rapes take place-as well as exorcisms and honor killings (Kondakov, 2019, p.316).

Usual set up

Human Rights Watch (2019) reports that a group of big men usually comes to a suspected gay man’s home or workplace. These men, who regularly wear anonymous uniforms, are police officers or from the military. “The Special Division of First Responders (SOBR) wearing black uniforms was particularly involved” (Benedek, 2018, p.13). These officers ask questions about an alleged crime or directly confront the alleged gay men about knowing about their homosexuality or bisexuality. Then they pummel them, ask for the names of other gays, and check their cell phones. Afterward, the alleged gay men are taken to a police facility where the police chief conducts the initial interrogation, while different sized groups of police officers conduct subsequent interrogations and torture in official or unofficial detention centers or prisons (ibid.).

Figure 2: Special Division of First Responders (SOBR), Source: Max Kalinin

Reported Practices

The sources examined for this article report at least six practices used during the purges: Extortion, interrogations, detentions, humiliations, torture, and killings. Officials extorted large ransoms for the men’s release. Furthermore, the alleged gay men were interrogated under torture to confess their gayness and to name other alleged gay men. Moreover, photographs were shown to identify other gay men, and cell phones were examined. The men were then held in detention centers, where officers humiliated them, asked them about their lives, insulted them, portrayed them as gay, and forced them to undress. By forcing some of the suspected gay detainees to clean the toilets, floors, and doors of a hallway, they were compelled to do what is considered women’s work. They were given no food and had limited access to water. In addition, police officers shaved off detainees’ beards and hair, or other detainees were forced to do so (Human Rights Watch, 2019).

Further, a gunshot reportedly killed two men at close range (Milashina, 2018, n.p.). Possibly more were killed, and others died at the hands of their families. Based on these practices, this paper focuses on torture. The following section describes torture from the perspective of ritual theory.

Torture as a ritual of cruelty

From the perspective of ritual theory, torture is a ritual of cruelty, a performance (Zirfas, 2004). As an analytical approach to describe the performative logic of torture, Zirfas offers four areas to analyze the performance of torture: Space, Time, Body, and Language.

Spatial

Zirfas (2004, p.131-134) describes that the rooms where victims are tortured are small, minimized, closed, manageable, and fully controllable. They are isolated from society, and the execution of torture is predictable. The room itself is already an instrument of torture and thus represents total power. The space is also compressed.

The rooms shown in the following pictures correspond to Zirfas’ spatial analysis description. At least six locations in Chechnya for interrogation and torture are known (Morgan, 2017). These are in Grozny, Argun, Terek, and Tsotsi-Yurt. Human Rights Watch (2019) reports the following locations.

In Grozny city, on the premises of an internal affairs police department, victims describe a large cell with an iron door on the fourth floor where about 40 detainees were held.

 

Figure 3: Large cell with an iron door, Source: Milashina

Figure 4: Cellar with metal door, Source: ibid.

Figure 5: Cellar/boiler room, Source: ibid.

At least two men were tortured in the garage on the compound, while 8-10 men were held in a solitary cell. Moreover, one man was held incommunicado in the basement. The windows were blacked out, and one man reports that he lost track of time.

Figure 6: Former military offices in Argun, Chechnya, Source: Gordienko & Milashina

Figures 7 – 17: Secret prison in Argun, Chechnya (former interior ministry), Source: Dmitry Skuratov

Time

While getting tortured, time perception is extinguished, and victims neither experience past nor future – only constant present. The victim is in temporal infinity at the threshold of death and survival (Zirfas, 2004, p.135-137).

The alleged gay men were held in the facilities for between three and twenty days from December 2018 to February 2019 (Human Rights Watch, 2019, n.p.) and for several months during the initial purge in 2017 (Kondakov, 2019, p.315). In addition, torture practices typically lasted between five and 15 minutes (Human Rights Watch, 2019, n.p.). Moreover, one man reported losing track of time when the windows were blacked out (ibid.)

Body

Zirfas (2004, p.137-139) explains that torture focuses mainly on the body – its agony, pain and limits. The victim is from a physiological perspective, just a body, and the executed power results in total control over the victim’s body. Torture constitutes an act in which the body has no limits.

For this reason, beatings to the body and the application of electric shocks are standard practices of torture. Human Rights Watch (2019) reports the use of the following artifacts and their use on the body during anti-homosexual purges in Chechnya: Foot boots for kicking, black-handled sticks and polypropylene pipes for beating, a cane for raping, heaters for handcuffing, a chain attached to a pole with a button to hang upside down, razors for shaving off beards and hair, metal butterfly clips on the thumb, index, and middle fingers, earlobes, and wires connected to an electrical device with a button.

Victims describe this electrical device with a button as a telephone. The torture practices described above affect the body physically and psychologically. On the physical side, Benedek (2018) reports broken ribs, jawbones, bruises, and death, while from a psychological perspective, we note anxiety, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder (Welcome to Chechnya, 2020).

In most cases, beatings and electric shocks are used for torture. However, what do we understand as beatings, and why are they so popular as a method of torture? Beatings are the most common method of torture, in which the body is systematically or unsystematically beaten or kicked with bare hands and/or feet. The practice might be complemented by using objects like, e.g., batons (Dignity, 2021, n.p.).

As we can see, only bodies are necessary for beatings – although objects may also be involved. The torturer uses his own body to cross the boundaries of the victim’s body in direct body-to-body contact.

In contrast, there is also the prevalent electroshock torture, in which an electronic device applies painful electric shocks to the body, often a converted (field) telephone that stands between the torturer and his victim. What is meant by electroshock torture?

Electricity has been used for torture (e.g., the electric chair) since at least the late 19th century. Smaller devices for electroshock torture have been in use for about 100 years. It is noteworthy that everyday devices became instruments of torture, for example, telephones or field telephones. The conversion of telephones into devices for electroshock torture is well known (Peterson, 2007), and the origins of converted (field) telephones appear to be in the United States. I will now describe field phones and their use as instruments of torture in more detail.

One of the first known field telephones used by the U.S. military for torture purposes was the so-called EE-8, invented in 1937 (Wikipedia, 2019). After that, between the 1950s and the 1980s, the TA-312/PT field telephone was the standard in the U.S. Army (Peterson, 2007). “The wires of the telephone were attached to the prisoner’s fingers, ears, genitals, or anus, and the hand crank used in communication to send a tone over the line was turned to produce a shock” (ibid., p.143).

Figure 18:The U.S. military field telephone TA-312/PT, Source: tandfonline.com

Later, the so-called Tucker telephone was invented in the 1960s in the USA by Dr. Rollins, who was the doctor at Tucker State Prison Farm in Arkansas. It is a torture device made from old telephone parts. The phone’s electricity generator is connected to two dry batteries. The phone can administer electric shocks to another person (Wikipedia, 2021c). It is discussed that field telephones were converted to Tucker telephones during the war.

Electroshock torture is also a common method of torture in the Russian Federation, which is also described as: “A phone call to Putin.” (Nemtsova, 2006, page?). According to witnesses, the device looks like a telephone with wires attached to the fingers and earlobes with metal clips (ibid.). The device is reminiscent of the Tucker telephone. The field telephones used in the Russian Federation likely look like those shown in the following pictures. The technical principle is the same as the devices used in the United States, but the devices from the Russian Federation look somewhat different.

Figure 19: Russian УНА field telephone, Source: Wikiwand

Figure 20: ТА-57 field telephone set, Source: Wikiwand

Figure 21: ТАИ-43 field telephone set, Source: Wikipedia

Most likely, the conversion of (field-)telephones into torture instruments is not limited to the USA or the Russian Federation.

Language

Torture is meant to bring out the truth in the form of a confession. The language of the torturer is humiliating and destructive. Communication is impossible, the victim is speechless, and the victim appears only as a painful cry (Zirfas, 2004, p.139-141).

Human Rights Watch (2019) quotes the used language during interrogation and torturing:

  • Where are the pansies?
  • Did you have sex last night?
  • Do you want us to torture you again?
  • You’re gays, you’re faggots.
  • You know why you’re here!… One way or the other, you’ll tell us the truth.
  • If you don’t want to be tortured, tell me [which gay men] you know.
  • Why aren’t you telling us who you know, you faggot?

They also report the use of obscene words, calling the men fags, asking who is active and passive during sex and whether they enjoy sex with a man (ibid.). We have highlighted the practice of torture from the perspective of ritual theory now. Although third parties play a role in the performance, they are not explicitly described in ritual theory. Nevertheless, they are worth mentioning. The parties involved in the anti-gay purges are: the Center for Islamic Medicine, the state, the family, the relatives, and the public.

I will briefly describe them in the following chapter, to gain a more profound understanding.

Third parties

The Center for Islamic Medicine in Grozny is a place where families can bring their relatives (primarily women) to have Islamic exorcism procedures performed as therapy against demons (Benedek, 2018, p.14).

Figure 22: Centre for Islamic Medicine in Grozny, Source: Google maps

Magomed Daudov represents the state, as he is the speaker of the Chechen parliament. He participated in some of the torture sessions (Benedek, 2018, p.14). He has been known to have participated in torture sessions in several cases since at least 2014 (Wikipedia, 2021b).

Figure 23: Magomed Daudov, Source: Wikipedia

What about the family and relatives? After the police finally release the suspected gay men, they turn them over to their families and religious clerics at the police station to reveal their sexual orientation. The police encourage the families to kill their sons, so that they can get rid of the shame. Those who survive usually flee Chechnya, breaking off all previous contact (Human Rights Watch, 2019). The authorities often demand ransom (Benedek, 2018, p.14).

What is the role of the public? As already mentioned, shame and honor are essential aspects of Chechen society. One way to express the deep-rooted values is by broadcasting public shaming on state television. Hence, people who express criticism of the Chechen government, e.g., on social media, or people who point out grievances, find themselves humiliated on television a short time later. They are forced to apologize publicly on television for their remarks. This practice can be described as extraordinarily shameful and degrading (Robinson, 2018). Unfortunately, no corresponding video of the anti-gay purges on public television was found on the Internet during the research for this article.

Current situation in the Russian Federation and Chechnya

For several years, cases of torture in the Russian Federation have attracted public attention (Nemtsova, 2018, n.p.). On the one hand, through testimonies of victims, on the other hand, through the publication of video footage. In October 2021, the human rights group Gulagu.net published more than 1,000 videos leaked by a whistleblower who recorded the videos between 2018 and 2020 in several prison hospitals. The videos show massive torture (beatings, humiliation), sexual abuse, and anal rape (by guards, other inmates, or with sticks/clubs) of about 200 people (Muratova, 2021; RFE/RL Russian Service, 2021; Prosvirova, 2021).

The most recent case of anti-gay purges in Chechnya is 19-year-old Salman Tepsurkaev, who runs a Telegram channel critical of the government and has been missing since September 2020. There is a video on social media of him being forced to rape himself with a bottle and apologizing for his criticism (Nemtsova, 2021, n.p.).

Discussion

Looking at ritual theory (Zirfas, 2004), it becomes apparent that the practices described in this article fit into the four domains of analysis. The indicators described by Zirfas can also be seen in the body area. Victims are beaten (with hands, feet, and/or batons), electric shocks are administered (via telephone wiring), and body boundaries are crossed by penetrating the anus with objects (brooms, mops).

Nevertheless, two practices do not fit. One is the creation of shame to gain control over the victim. The other is the link between masculinity and sexual anal intercourse. The present record shows the persecution of suspected homosexual men. Further, those men are denied their masculinity when officers or other prisoners shave off beards because the beard is considered a male gender characteristic or when they use derogatory language. On the other hand, guards sodomize the men forcefully or insert objects into the men’s anuses. This point is particularly interesting since this forced practice is meant to deny the victims masculinity. This connection remains mainly unclear and should therefore be further investigated.

From a legal perspective, it is noteworthy that the Russian Federation has been reluctant to prosecute torture within the country, despite intense pressure from the international governments and organizations.  Hence, torture remains a widespread practice in the Russian Federation.

Limitations

There are a few limitations to keep in mind that may stimulate future research. The first limitation is that the entry refers to torture practices during the anti-gay purges in Chechnya from 2017 – 2019. No other periods have been reported to date.

The second limitation relates to the sources used. Since the events have not yet been adequately researched scientifically, very few publications exist. Therefore, I mainly relied on English-language news reports, information from human rights organizations, and the documentary film “Welcome in Chechnya.” Some of these sources were available in Russian and were translated online, but additional sources may exist in Russian or Chechen. Official documents or transcripts of interviews with affected persons were not found, having in mind that the search could only be done in English. Hence, it can be stated that a more in-depth analysis was denied due to limited sources and language restrictions.

The last limitation is that this entry deals with the situation in Chechnya but does not investigate the situation in other states of the North Caucasus region. Persecution of homosexual men and women is pervasive in many countries worldwide, including the Russian Federation. However, there was no analysis of torture practices outside Chechnya or comparison of torture practices within a global framework. Lastly, the text mentions only briefly the situation of alleged lesbian women in Chechnya but does not address it further. 

Dirk Schlegel studies in the master program Social Science (Culture & Person) at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (February 2022). 

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