Lawmakers Demand U.S. Action to Stop Purge of Gays in Chechnya

WASHINGTON -- Amid a growing chorus of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the United States "must not sit idly" amid reports of gays being kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Chechnya.

Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported at the beginning of the month that "more than a hundred men" had been arrested in the Russian republic on account of their suspected sexual orientation, tied to the local custom of honor killings, with at least three being killed in custody. One security source told the paper that the wave of arrests was "mopping up" -- appearing to have been accelerated by Russian LGBT activists' March applications to hold gay pride parades in the Caucasus. Human Rights Watch has confirmed the anti-gay purge and said it's been going on since February.

Chechen officials -- who called the report an April Fool's joke and claimed there were no gays in the region -- and the Kremlin have denied the report. Chechen clerics have threatened the newspaper's staff over the story that "besmirches the honor and reputation of Muslims, the inhabitants of Chechnya and Russian citizens." Elena Milashina, who wrote the story, has temporarily fled Moscow. Other journalists who have even mentioned the story or defended Novaya Gazeta have also come under threat.

Hoyer said Wednesday he was "appalled" at the reports that Chechen officials "have been detaining LGBT individuals and subjecting them to torture and possibly mass murder."

"This kind of violent, organized persecution based on sexual orientation recalls the darkest days of history. The United States must not sit idly by while such human rights violations take place," he added. "If these reports are true, they signal a dangerous escalation of the Russian Federation's ongoing denial of basic rights of LGBT people within its borders."

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the reports "extremely disturbing and contrary to basic international human rights norms."

“I join the Trump administration's call for Russian authorities to immediately investigate the reports of these horrific actions and hold the perpetrators accountable," Gardner said. "The United States will not stand for discrimination based on sexual orientation, or any other reason, and we cannot look the other way as human rights are violated around the world.”

The White House has not publicly made any statements about the purge. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement this week that "this violation of human rights cannot be ignored ― Chechen authorities must immediately investigate these allegations, hold anyone involved accountable, and take steps to prevent future abuses.”

“We are against all forms of discrimination, including against people based on sexual orientation," she added. "When left unchecked, discrimination and human rights abuses can lead to destabilization and conflict.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden, calling on the U.S. to take action in a Friday statement, noted that "Chechen authorities and the culture of impunity that surrounds them means that these hate crimes are unlikely to ever be properly investigated or that the perpetrators will see justice."

"But that does not mean that we should fail to defend basic human rights, fundamental freedoms, and universal values," Biden added.

The Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus led an April 7 bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him speak out against the human rights abuses in Chechnya and pressure the Russian government to stop the attacks.

“The most fundamental internationally accepted human rights are the right to life, liberty, and security of person," said LGBT Equality Caucus Vice-Chairman Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.). "I stand with the LGBT community in the Chechen Republic, and I call on Secretary Tillerson to denounce these atrocities and I call on the Russian and Chechen authorities to immediately halt these arrests and prosecute those who have tortured and murdered innocent people."