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Two Gay Chechens: Torture, Escape, and a Forced Return

Chechnya, a majority Muslim republic of southern Russia, has a long a history of LGBTI persecution. Numerous reports have come out of Chechnya in recent years about the torture, disappearance, and death of LGBTI persons at the hands of state authorities. This brutal trend continues to this day, most recently with the developing story of Ismail Isayev (aged 17) and Salekh Magamadov (aged 20), two gay Chechen men who initially fled Chechnya to avoid such persecution. The two men, after suffering torture at the hands of Chechen authorities, fled from Chechnya further into Russia in 2020 in the hopes of leaving such terror behind them, but on the 4th of February in 2021, their past found them. Detained by Russian police and soon after returned to Chechnya, and by extension Chechen authorities, the two men face a terrifying road ahead of them. However, to understand further why this is happening, one must understand the events leading up to this point.

The Early Story: Torture and Escape

Per a joint statement by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and a few other human rights NGOs, Ismail and Salekh had been detained in April of 2020 for “moderating independent youth Telegram channel Osal Nakh 95 that contained many posts critical of Chechen authorities.” During their arbitrary detention, the two suffered ill-treatment, humiliation, and torture at the hands of authorities, leading to a forced video which showed them “apologizing” for their actions. Backed up by reports from both the BBC and the Guardian, the joint statement further details that this persecution caught the attention of the Russian LGBT Network. By August of that year, out of concern for their safety, the two men fled Chechnya with the Russian LGBT Network’s assistance, and they were able to settle in Nizhny Novgorod, east of Moscow. Their residency in the area was maintained for the next few months, but the Chechen authorities did not forget about the two. By the time February 2021 came around, the two men once again found themselves detained.

The Developing Story: Back to Chechnya

On the 4th of February, the two men’s lives were thrown into chaos once again. The Russian LGBT Network, who had assisted Ismail and Salekh flee Chechnya initially, received an emergency call in which, per Theo Merz of the Guardian, they heard “screaming in the background of the call,” and upon investigating their residence found evidence of a struggle. Their residence had been breached by the Nizhny Novgorod special police unit, with the men nowhere to be found. After the call, and before anyone could stop what was happening, they were returned to Chechnya. Under the guise of a “terrorism investigation,” both Ismail and Salekh have been detained and, via the joint statement mentioned above, “were pushed to refuse legal aid,” with the Chechen authorities refusing “to disclose the grounds for… detention or any other circumstances of the case.” With their exact whereabouts unknown, both men find themselves in considerable danger, especially because of their history with the Chechen authorities. Fears about further humiliation, torture, and even a chance of the two dying are not unfounded, and their fate may largely depend on the response of the international community.

Going Forward

With various reports and statements being published about the events, the UN has had its attention drawn to the case, calling for Russia to “act urgently to protect the rights of people.” While this development is a good step forward, the men remain detained, and such statements in the past have not stopped Chechen authorities from their campaign of persecution. A more involved, and forceful, international statement of condemnation and action is required, as well as a continued pressure on the Russians to keep to international agreements on human rights. Depending on how the international community continues to respond, Ismail and Salekh’s fortunes, and by extension much of the Russian LGBTI community’s fortunes, can grow or decline substantially.

Alexander Champeau, 16th February 2021