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.”
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.
The main economic university in Yekaterinburg monitors the sexual orientation of its students through social networks. A special service for monitoring the moral character of students has been created at USUE. The mere fact of communication with representatives of the LGBT community is enough to cause problems. One student is already at risk of expulsion.
“Vice-rector Krasnov Roman Valerievich called him and demanded to pick up documents from the university with the wording: we tracked your social networks, here are the printouts – you are gay,” fellow students of the injured student told EAN.
He himself confirms this story: “The director of my institute called me and said that an unpleasant situation had occurred and I needed to talk. At the meeting, he explained that a group for monitoring social networks of students was created and they found that I was subscribed to a group of the LGBT community. Then the vice-rector for educational work Roman Krasnov called me to him, he said that I “defamed the name of the institute”, that I have a pink phone and that having a girl, in his opinion, is not an excuse and does not prove that I am not gay ”, told EAN Vitaliy himself (name changed).
According to him, he was sent to collect characteristics from the school and from the place of work, on their basis a decision will be made whether he is gay or not. From the groups that caused the scandal, he has already retired.
Roman Krasnov confirmed to EAN that monitoring the behavior of students and their participation in similar groups in social networks is underway.
“We have not only now – we have led, are and will continue to monitor the social networks of our students! For one simple reason: we are a state university, and, accordingly, we look at the moral character of our students. We have the right to see how our student lives. After all, these are public pages. And what prevents our youth policy department, our social management department from seeing: how, what do our students do outside of school hours? Of course, we watch social networks, ”the vice-rector for social work told EAN.
But to answer the question of whether participation in LGBT community groups is the basis for expulsion and with what wording the order is received in such cases, he refused, offering to write an official request indicating the name of the particular expelled student.
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke about conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation of LGBT people in Russia. He wrote about this in his new memoirs.
Cameron was concerned about the adoption in Russia of a law banning “gay propaganda” and raised the issue of the rights of LGBT people in a private conversation with Putin.
“It was our coolest conversation. He said that population decline is a problem for Russia and that he needs men to marry women and give birth to many children, ”ex-Prime Minister Cameron quoted Putin as saying.
After SERB nationalist activists interrupted a play about being gay in Russia, police arrested the play’s director. We asked her what happened.
On the evening of August 28, 12 activists from the SERB movement forced their way into Moscow’s Teatr.doc documentary theater and interrupted a play called Coming Out of the Closet. SERB is a radical nationalist group whose members have a history of similar attacks: In addition to targeting opposition figures, SERB has stormed or damaged multiple art exhibitions. When the group disrupted Coming Out of the Closet, multiple theater employees and audience members called the police. Officers responded by arresting the play’s director, Anastasia Patlai, as well as two audience members. One viewer was cited for disorderly conduct, and the other turned out to be under 18 years old even though he had shown theater employees a 19-year-old’s passport upon entry. We spoke with Patlai about the incident and about the suspiciously close relationship between SERB and the police.
Coming Out of the Closet has been in Teatr.doc’s repertoire for nearly three years, but before every staging, the theater’s employees still check every audience member’s passport upon entry to make sure nobody under 18 watches the show. Coming Out of the Closet is a documentary play like any other in that it is based strictly on real events: According to director Anastasia Patlai, it is based on more than 30 detailed interviews. However, a basis in fact doesn’t prevent some from seeing the performance as “gay propaganda” (the show follows Russian gay men between ages 30 and 40 as they come out to their mothers for the first time).
Even before the August 28, Patlai told Meduza, homophobic activists had targeted showings of Coming Out of the Closet at least twice. On one occasion, they called police officers before a Moscow performance of the play in July 2018. The officers arrived at Teatr.doc an hour before the show was set to begin, and Patlai explained to them that theater employees enforce a strict age limit to avoid breaking Russia’s “gay propaganda” law. When Patlai pointed the officers to groups on Russian social media sites where Internet users have posted threats against the theater, the police decided to stay for the duration of the play in case of any violence or disruption.
The second incident was much more recent, Patlai said: On Sunday, August 25, a group of known homophobic activists based in St. Petersburg targeted a showing of Coming Out of the Closet there. Patlai told Meduza that she was acting onstage as an understudy that day when she saw a man stand up in the audience and approach the stage, which is separated from viewers only by a row of columns. The man was not in uniform, she recalled, but he had a gun in his belt. Following the show, police officers arrived on the scene and began checking audience members’ passports. Evidently, they had received a call from somebody who said the play was “defiling children.” Patlai said she believed the August 28 incident was a “continuation” of what happened that night.
She and her staff began suspecting that something was wrong when one young man who came to watch the play appeared to be very nervous and took a long time to find his ticket. The man gave theater employees a copy of a passport that said he was born in 2000, but they took a picture of him and the passport nonetheless, suspecting that something might be amiss.
Patlai went on to tell Meduza that after the play began, a different man approached her in her office and expressed anger at the contents of the performance. He was followed shortly afterward by the same young man who had claimed to be 19. Both men then returned alongside 10 more adults carrying cameras and lights on selfie sticks.
When Patlai realized that it would be impossible to stop the group from entering the theater, she stepped onstage to explain the situation to the audience and ask them to stay until it was resolved. Meanwhile, the group of intruders began shouting homophobic slurs at the play’s viewers. Both the intruders and their victims began making calls to the police, and Patlai called a prominent human rights journalist to ask for help finding an attorney. When Patlai looked outside the theater to see whether the police were on their way, she saw a man waving a black-and-yellow striped flag and holding a poster with more homophobic slurs. She also noticed that one of the men in the theater was wearing a T-shirt that said “SERB.”
When police officers did arrive, the situation only got worse. “The police acted like they’d known these people [the SERB activists] for a long time, like they didn’t care at all about the disorderly conduct in the theater or the disruption of the show,” Patlai told Meduza. “The police didn’t check even one of these people’s papers. They acted as though they and SERB were on the same team. They knew ahead of time that there were minors in the room, and all they wanted to do was deal with that fact.”
According to Patlai, the group of homophobic protesters also made an effort to enable police to target individual audience members: “When the police arrived, the provocateurs started a fight with one of the people in the audience. One of the women [among the SERB activists] shouted, “He’s hitting a woman!” while another provocateur pushed the audience member onto the ground […] The police immediately put handcuffs on him and took him out to their car without stopping to realize the whole thing was a provocation,” the director explained.
Patlai was taken to a police station alongside that audience member and the young man who said he was 19: Police determined that he was in fact a minor. Even while Patlai was in custody, police did nothing to stop the SERB activists from targeting her. She told Meduza, “While I was testifying, the door was open, and they [the SERB activists] commented on everything I said: ‘Sodom, drown them, shoot them.’” The police did not interfere, she said.
Only Anton Tkachuk, the audience member who was pushed to the ground, was ultimately cited for disorderly conduct. He spent the night in the police station, and Patlai said Teatr.doc would likely assist him if he is forced to pay a fine. The young man who was arrested along with them spoke to police alongside his father for an extended period of time, but the children’s inspector who questioned them did not tell Patlai anything about what actions investigators might take against the young man or Teatr.doc.
Despite the disruption and Patlai’s arrest, Teatr.doc ultimately completed their performance with about 80 percent of the audience still in attendance.
Given that Coming Out of the Closet is not a new play for the theater, Patlai speculated that the recent homophobic attacks against it must be related to some external political cause. The director said she felt hatred and hate-based attacks are generally on the rise in Russia but added that the upcoming September 8 elections in Moscow might also have played a role in the timing of the two most recent interruptions.
“Homophobia is a lasting resource in [Russian] politics. I’m not involved in politics,” Patlai said. “I put on shows about love so that people can start understanding each other and finding something in common with one another.” She argued that the logic behind the “gay propaganda” law is misguided: “It can’t be that every instance of the word ‘gay’ is propaganda. That’s nonsense. And the fact that we calmly relay stories about real people doesn’t qualify as propagandizing homosexuality.”