Rome (CNN) – Pope Francis said some of the things he’s heard targeting Jews and the LGBTQ community remind him of the days of Adolf Hitler.
The pope made the remarks Friday while speaking to members of the International Association of Penal Law, which is meeting this week in Rome. “I confess that when I hear some speeches by someone responsible for public order or a government, I am reminded of Hitler’s speeches in 1934 and 1936,” the pope said. “They are typical actions of Nazism which with its persecutions of Jews, gypsies, people of homosexual orientation, represent a negative model ‘par excellence’ of a throwaway culture and a culture of hate.” “That’s what they did then and today these things are resurfacing,” the pope added, calling on his audience “to be vigilant, both in civil and religious society, to avoid any possible compromise…with such degeneration.”
VIDEO. A remarkable incident in the stay of the black-footed penguins in Amersfoort Zoo: a penguin-gay couple breeds on an egg that they have stolen from a heterocouple at an unguarded moment.
“The gay couple take good care of the egg, the males both breed alternately,” says animal caretaker Marc Belt.
The penguin couple that produced the egg earlier has laid a new egg in the meantime and is also busy hatching in a nest further on.
Penguin chick. In DierenPark Amersfoort the first penguin chick has already been spotted by the caretakers and so more chicks are expected soon. “Among those new chicks, we naturally hope to welcome one from the gay couple, we are waiting,” said the animal caretaker of DierenPark Amersfoort.
Ramzan Kadyrov rules the Caucasus republic through fear and oppression, amid reports of torture. But those seeking asylum in Europe are not safe, as assassins hunt them down.
Zelimkhan Khangoshvili spent a long time living on the edge. He survived several years of partisan warfare against Russian forces in Chechnya.
“I think he felt much safer here. He was only thinking about building a bright future in Germany, also for the children, not about fighting or going back there,” said Manana Tsatieva, Khangoshvili’s ex-wife, who lives in Germany with their four children.
But it was here, in the centre of Europe, that Khangoshvili finally met his end. Late last month, shortly after leaving home to go to the mosque, a man approached him in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten and shot him twice in the head. He died immediately.
The suspected assassin, who was held by police soon after he was spotted tossing a wig and a gun into the river, has so far maintained his silence. He was travelling on a Russian passport apparently issued under a false identity, boosting suspicions about a hit ordered by Russian security services or by the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Whoever ordered the hit, the killing has once again underlined the perilous position of thousands of Chechens in Europe, fearing retribution from home but unable to win asylum. Germany had rejected a request for asylum for Khangoshvili and his family, and ignored a request to give him protection because of threats on his life.
Khangoshvili was the latest in a trail of killings over the past decade in which insurgency figures and other enemies of Kadyrov have been shot dead, wherever they may be hiding.
In 2009, Kadyrov’s former bodyguard Umar Israilov, who had publicly stated he had been personally tortured by Kadyrov, was shot dead in Vienna. The same year, a political rival to Kadyrov, Sulim Yamadayev, was shot dead in Dubai. Local police accused a Chechen politician close to Kadyrov of supplying the murder weapon. There have been half a dozen prominent Chechens killed in Istanbul over the past decade, with Turkish authorities believing Russian security services are involved. And in Ukraine, where Chechens have joined volunteer battalions fighting pro-Russian forces, the Chechen fighter Amina Okuyeva was killed in an ambush of her car in 2017. Her husband and battalion commander, Adam Osmayev, was wounded but survived. Previously, the pair had been targeted by a Chechen hitman pretending to be a French journalist from Le Monde who had come to interview them.
Chechnya under Kadyrov has become one of the world’s most sinister human rights blackspots. The son of a former independence fighter who switched sides, Kadyrov has used Russian cash to rebuild the republic from the ruins of war and has been given a free hand to rule as he pleases in return for pledging allegiance to Vladimir Putin. In recent years, his security forces have carried out extrajudicial round-ups of a wide array of groups, including suspected militants, government critics, those deemed to have the wrong kind of beard or those who are suspected of being gay. There is widespread testimony of his forces using torture.
Unlike Khangoshvili, the majority of recent Chechen arrivals in Europe have had nothing to do with the former insurgency, and are instead those who have fled threats and torture, leaving their homes as a last resort. But just like Khangoshvili, most of these people struggle to secure asylum, amid increasing hostility to migration in western Europe – especially Muslim migration.
In Germany, Poland and other EU countries, several thousand Chechens are in legal limbo and risk deportation back to Russia, despite having what should be textbook asylum claims: victims of torture with credible threats against their lives and their families. Having made the arduous journey to western Europe, they are often dismissed as economic migrants or potential radical Islamists and told to go back home.
For many Chechen refugees, their ordeal begins in Brest, a Belarussian town close to the border with Poland. This is the closest that Chechens, who usually hold Russian passports, can get to the EU without a visa. Each morning a train leaves Brest on the short ride to the Polish border, usually with around 200 Chechens on board. They are obliged to travel in a separate carriage from other passengers.
At the border, Polish guards pick no more than one family a day whom they allow to place an asylum claim; the rest are simply sent back on the same train. Earlier this summer a Chechen man cut his veins at the border in desperation: his reward was a stamp in his passport automatically disbarring him from any further attempts, said Enira Bronitskaya, a Belarusian rights activist.
Ayub Abumuslimov and his family spent five months living in a cold, damp apartment in Brest, taking the train several times a week in the hope of being selected for asylum. Abumuslimov fled Chechnya after the disappearance of his brother Apti from the town of Shali in January 2017. Apti was kidnapped, along with a neighbour, and taken to the local police station. He was never seen again. Many other people disappeared at the same time, and Apti featured in a list of 27 people published by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta as potential victims of an extrajudicial execution by local law enforcement.
The problems for the rest of the family started when they began writing complaints about what had happened. In June 2017, Abumuslimov said, his car was stopped by men in plain clothes and he was bundled into the back of another car. He was taken to an undisclosed location, where he was held and tortured for more than two months.
Abumuslimov described simple beatings, as well as more sinister treatment, including electric shocks. The worst, he said, was salt torture, where his hands and legs were cuffed and large quantities of salt were poured into his mouth. When he was on the point of choking, he would be given water to drink, causing extreme pain as the salt passed through his body.
“They wanted me to sign a form saying my brother was fighting in Syria and we had no complaints about law enforcement. I refused,” he said. His tormentors wore official police uniforms, though all but two of them were in masks. He was released after more than two months.
It is not possible to verify the details of Abumuslimov’s claims of torture, but they tally with an overwhelming number of similar stories from Chechens unfortunate enough to find themselves in the hands of Kadyrov’s security forces. Maria Książak, a psychologist who is now treating Abumuslimov, said: “He displays all the signs of someone who has been through serious trauma.”
After his release, Abumuslimov and his extended family fled Chechnya for Brest, with the aim of making it to western Europe. It took them five months and 40 train journeys before Polish border guards finally allowed them to file an asylum claim. But even in Poland, he was not safe.
While Polish authorities processed their claim in the town of Biala Podlaska, Abumuslimov gave a media interview about the family’s plight. Shortly afterwards, as he was leaving a supermarket in the town, a car drove up with three people inside. They tried to drag him into the back seat but he fought back, dropped his shopping and ran.
“A couple of days later I was called from a Russian number and a Chechen voice said, ‘You thought we won’t find you in Poland? We’ll find you anywhere.’ ” The family fled to Germany, where they lodged a new asylum claim, but have so far been rejected due to the regulation that asylum seekers must apply in the “first safe country”, which German authorities deem to be Poland.
There are many Chechens with similar stories who do not speak publicly for fear of reprisals against their families back in Chechnya, but Abumuslimov said he and his family want to go public because they refuse to be intimidated, and want to get justice for Apti. They are also launching a case against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights.
“The most unbelievable violations occur on a daily basis in Chechnya, it is by far the worst place in Europe for rights abuses, but because Kadyrov silences the victims of violence, we get a lot of information and evidence that we can’t use, because if we do the whole family will be targeted,” said Russian rights activist Ekaterina Sokirianskaya.
The case of Tumso Abdurakhmanov provides a rare documented insight into the way Kadyrov’s regime threatens Chechens in Europe. Abdurakhmanov was working for a telecommunications company in Grozny, Chechnya when he says he was apprehended as a suspected radical due to his long beard. Authorities insisted he had gone to fight in Syria, a claim he says is false. He fled to Georgia and eventually to Poland, where he started a video blog denouncing Kadyrov’s regime. His YouTube videos got thousands of hits, and soon he received a phone call from Magomed Daudov, Kadyrov’s right-hand man, widely known in Chechnya by his nickname, Lord. Abdurakhmanov recorded the call and posted the recording online.
Aware that Abdurakhmanov was abroad and had a large following, Lord did not immediately resort to threats. Instead, he promised they could discuss issues openly, and cajoled him into returning to Chechnya to help Kadyrov, whom Lord called the “padishah” or “emperor”.
As he failed to make headway, Lord got angrier, demanding to know Abdurakhmanov’s address in Poland. He later publicly declared “blood revenge” on the blogger. Later, Abdurakhmanov’s family back in Chechnya were filmed at the village mosque denouncing their relative, in footage that was posted online. “If they want to, let them kill him or do what they want with him. We have been gathered here today to announce that we no longer accept responsibility for him,” said one of his relatives, in a recording Abdurakhmanov believes was made under duress.
“I know they’re hunting for me. They’re searching for me, so of course I am taking measures to protect myself,” said Abdurakhmanov on a Skype call from an undisclosed location in Poland. Polish authorities have accepted there is a threat to his life in Russia, and have granted asylum to his wife and three children. But they have rejected his claim on national security grounds. The evidence that motivated the decision is classified.
“I can’t defend myself from the accusations because I don’t know what I’m being accused of. I have not been questioned at all; there has not been a single discussion with the authorities,” he said, declining to give his location, except to say he was moving frequently. He said he was now in hiding both from Chechen assassins and from Polish authorities, certain that if they detain him and deport him to Russia, he will be killed.
It appears possible that European asylum authorities are relying on Russian accusations of terrorist leanings when denying asylum applications. It is true that in recent years, hundreds of Chechens became radicalised, with some joining Islamic State and even taking senior positions in the group. It is also true that Chechen and Russian authorities have used accusations of radical Islamism as a pretext to arrest or torture people.
“It is a very complicated situation, but we end up with cases of people who very clearly need asylum and are being rejected,” said Sokirianskaya.
Tsatieva, ex-wife of Khangoshvili, hopes that his murder may finally prompt German authorities to positively assess her asylum claim and those of her children. “It’s a very difficult time for me and the children. We are afraid of what may happen next, and there is still no decision regarding our asylum in Germany.”
Książak, who has treated Chechen and other victims of torture for more than two decades, said removing the threat of deportation from traumatised refugees was the best way to help them recover and integrate. “When protection to torture survivors is finally granted, the fears that haunted them slowly dissolve. Trust and family relations improve and social integration follows. But if they live in constant fear it is very hard for them to recover.”
Chechnya’s troubled history. Chechnya’s history over the past three decades has been both tragic and tangled, as the original fight for independence from Russia in the 1990s fragmented.
When Vladimir Putin first came to power in Russia in 1999, he launched the second Chechen war with a ruthless air campaign. Russia won back control of the region but at a terrible human cost.
The Kremlin put Akhmad Kadyrov, a rebel who switched sides, in charge of the region. After he was killed in 2004, his son Ramzan took over and has run Chechnya ever since, rebuilding the region with Moscow’s roubles and given free rein to establish a legal grey zone where his word is law and a cult of personality has flourished.
The insurgency split, with those in favour of a secular independent Chechnya mostly moving to Europe and the remaining rebels becoming more Islamist and using terrorist methods. By 2007, Chechen fighters had rebranded their movement as a “Caucasus emirate”, seeking to adopt sharia law across the whole region and later allying with Islamic State. Kadyrov has used this to paint all opposition to him as radical Islamist.
As the years have gone by, his security forces have acted with ever more impunity against his real and perceived enemies.
Grozny today is unrecognisable from the devastated shell of a city left after the two wars: shiny new high-rises are lit with neon and the central thoroughfare is called Putin Avenue. Portraits of Kadyrov and his slain father adorn many buildings, and a parade of western celebrities have visited and professed their admiration for Kadyrov. But behind the façade, an atmosphere of fear prevails.
On October 25, a report (part 1 and part 2)from the American television station ABC about gays in Chechnya was released. The film crew interviewed several homosexuals who had to flee abroad because of the persecution and torture they suffered in the republic (Novaya Gazeta was first told about this in April 2017). During an interview with Chechen police chief Apti Alaudinov in a Grozny prison, ABC correspondent James Longman suddenly asked what his interlocutor would have thought if Longman had told him that he was gay. Although Alaudinov did not do anything special in response – he just laughed out loud, the recording of this conversation was widely distributed in the Russian media. In general, Longman has long been openly declaring his homosexuality. Meduza spoke with a journalist about what tricks the ABC crew had to go to make such a report in Chechnya – and why this conversation with Alaudinov was needed.
How long did it take to prepare a report from Chechnya?
About a year. We started looking for victims living in different countries through representatives of the LGBT support network Rainbow Railroad in Moscow and activists; to persuade our heroes to give us an interview. It was necessary to make sure that we would not expose them to additional danger, and this is a rather lengthy process. It should be noted that many of these young people are still severely traumatized by their experience, and it was important for us to make sure that we would not do them too much harm. We talked to people in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and North America, so we had to do a lot of work in different parts of the world.
How difficult was it to persuade the characters in an interview – and not just anonymously, but also, like Amin Dzhabrailov, openly, with a face in the frame and name?
Amin decided to publicly announce his story independently of us, and we already saw an interview with him for the Canadian television company CBC a couple of weeks before our conversation with him. Prior to that, he had already given an interview to the media in 2017, but anonymously. And after the case of Maxim [Lapunov] was closed, Amin decided that the only way to pay attention to what was happening in Chechnya was to speak out publicly that anonymity no longer works.
But Amin is the only one who agreed to talk to us under his name and not hiding his face. Absolutely everyone else was scared to death that they could be watched. The Guardian recently reported on Chechen death squads in Europe. I think that this is an exaggeration, but at least they are afraid that they will be recognized by their family members or distant acquaintances. The fact is that the Chechen diaspora abroad is quite extensive due to the recent history of this region. Therefore, it seems that they have long arms. And Amin, for example, receives threats every day both from Chechnya and from Chechens living abroad. So they are not that completely safe, even after leaving Chechnya.
In total, we contacted nine or ten victims, of whom four agreed to an interview. We interviewed some, but after that they began to fear for their safety, so we did not start broadcasting them. For example, we met with a group of gays in Belgium who only recently managed to leave Chechnya, and they were still very afraid for their safety. But I spent the whole weekend with them, went with them to the Antwerp Pride, and it was a strong impression – how these young people, just from Chechnya, march along with everyone at the pride.
What additional security measures did you have to take to preserve the anonymity of the heroes?
In Chechnya, we had one shoot of an interview with a hero, and I did not participate in it. They explained to us that if we are going to interview authorities, we will have to talk to the victims of the persecution on another visit, because we will most likely be under surveillance. Of course, we have accepted these conditions. We did not speak with our heroes either by phone or by email – only in secure messengers. Well, and a lot of such nuances. And, of course, I had to not only hide the faces of the heroes, but also change their voice.
But this episode, in which you tell [the first deputy minister of internal affairs of Chechnya] Apti Alaudinov about your own homosexuality, – how did this come about? And what kind of reaction did you expect?
In general, this whole evening in Grozny is a complete surprise. Actually, we did not plan to meet with him. We had a very official visit to Chechnya: we warned the authorities in advance, did not enter the republic secretly, nothing of the kind. In our application, we wrote that we want to see how Grozny looks in 2019, 20 years after the start of the last war, all in that spirit. But we honestly mentioned that we were going to discuss issues of attacks on gays and other human rights violations in Chechnya.
But the meeting with Alaudinov was completely unplanned. In general, we went to meet with Kheda Saratova, a member of the Human Rights Council under the head of Chechnya, she is working on the problems of radicalizing youth. And here we are sitting in her office, and I say: actually we wanted to meet with someone from the authorities or even go to jail (that in Grozny there is a secret prison in the basement of the threat room in which gays are tortured, Maxim Lapunov told – approx. “Jellyfish”). And she says: “What didn’t you say right away? Now I will arrange a meeting with Apti Alaudinov, he will be here in 20 minutes. “
We think: well, of course, that’s what we believed. But she made a couple of calls, and exactly 20 minutes later, General Alaudinov arrives. We could not believe our eyes. And he drove us all night on Grozny. I think he just saw a great opportunity to PR. Surely he thought: oh, the American television channel in Chechnya, here is a chance to tell his story. In addition, he seemed to us narcissistic, he was clearly flattered that he was being interviewed.
I had no desire to tell anyone in Chechnya or elsewhere that I was gay. I wanted to make a report on this subject, because it seems to me important, regardless of whether I am heterosexual or gay, blue or pink. Yes, I informed the heroes of our interviews about my own homosexuality in order to better get in touch with them. We discussed what it was like to grow up gay. But I did not intend to say anything like that to the Chechen authorities: firstly, it didn’t seem like a safe idea to me, and secondly, I just didn’t want it to turn into a story about myself.
But Alaudinov was surprisingly talkative, including on such topics. And here we are standing in this cell – and I finally decided. I warned the crew in advance about my plans, especially Patrick [Rivell, producer of the ABC channel in Moscow], because he speaks Russian and is better oriented in the situation. In general, I raised this question because they have very specific concepts in Chechnya about who gays are: all these stereotypes that if you are homosexual, then you are not quite a man.
By this moment, we had already been together for about three hours, and it began to seem to me that on a purely human level, I was quite nice to Alaudinov. We exchanged jokes, had fun as much as possible, spent time. And I thought: if I suddenly tell him that I’m gay, maybe this will change his attitude towards homosexuality? In response, he simply laughed out loud. Then I took his hand and laid it on my chest to show him how scared I was – my heart was pounding. But he only laughed even harder. Honestly, this laugh sounded somewhat menacing.
“But he did not jump away from you in horror or disgust?”
“No, he just blushed a lot.” But it seemed to me that he struggled to maintain the image: they say, we do not care whether you are gay or not. And, it seems, he carefully selected expressions, so as not to say anything to the camera that would sound unsightly.
But when I asked him at the end of the evening whether he now thinks that I am less than a man than he, Alaudinov answered: “I’ll tell you honestly, you will never become my friend.” And at that moment, his mask moved for a moment, and I saw that no, he cares, he really hates gays. Of course, this is not proof that he was involved in the torture of gays, but this is a good indicator that he really thinks about them. So, it seems to me, it was a useful experience, although we did not plan anything similar in advance.
“Does it not seem to you that he prepared for such a turn?” You did not indicate your name in the official application for accreditation for this trip? He could google you and decide: oh, this is the same gay journalist who travels everywhere and takes interviews, now we will arrange a Potemkin village for him.
Probably not, because the interview with him was organized literally in 20 minutes, and when Kheda Saratova called him, she said that ABC wants to talk to him without mentioning my name. Perhaps he knew that it was me; in the end, to find out who I am, you don’t need to be a police state, just google my name, I’m openly gay. Maybe he did – but how do you find out?
Of course, the Potemkin village was shown to us, otherwise it cannot be described. Everything was polished to a brilliance, and in the prison where we were brought there was not a single prisoner, and at some point he even said: they say, look how safe it is in Chechnya, there is no crime, nobody even sits in prison !
“Have you done anything like this before?” After all, you traveled a lot around the world, made reports from the Middle East, already being an open gay.
No, although I have been to many countries where it’s dangerous to be openly gay. A few years ago, I was reporting on LGBT refugees from Syria living in Lebanon. In March, I was in Syria, and this is not the place where people are ready to openly talk with you about how they feel about gays. But I didn’t concentrate specifically on the LGBT aspect in my reports, and usually I don’t talk about my personal life.
“Of all the places you’ve been to, where is the most dangerous place to be gay?” Is Chechnya the most dangerous place in the world, or about the level of other countries with homophobic politics?
In Chechnya, this is the worst of all. Yes, there are countries where if you are gay, your family may refuse you, they may even kill you. For example, when I was in Syria, I spoke with young people who were threatened to be killed by their own relatives when they learned about their homosexuality.
But here is a different situation. If what the heroes of our report told us is true, then it turns out that in Chechnya it is the government that is systematically engaged in mass arrests and torture of gays. This is the difference, so I would say that in Chechnya the situation for gays is worse than anywhere else.
Do you think that such reports and international attention will help your heroes and LGBT people in Chechnya in general?
I think the situation is twofold. On the one hand, the Russian authorities are very concerned about how Russia is seen in the rest of the world. On the other hand, only this will not convince them. They have a rather schizophrenic attitude towards the attention of the world media: 50% of the time they say that they do not care what they write about them, and the other 50% they are very worried about what foreigners think.
Reporting alone, like mine, is not enough to change attitudes — more evidence of victims of torture and persecution is needed to make them feel safe enough to make this public. After the release of my report, I already received many messages from young Chechen gays living in Europe or America, they thank me for telling me about what they had to transfer.
When people see that their stories are taken seriously, this can give them confidence. And this is the only way to force a change in attitude in Moscow to the situation of gays in Chechnya. I don’t think it is true that Vladimir Putin is really worried that ABC is thinking about what is happening in Chechnya. My goal is to give confidence to the Chechens themselves. And if my report helps other victims of the persecution to take courage and tell about myself, I will consider my task completed.