The IBA’s response to the war in Ukraine  

Central Asia: laws fail to protect LGBTI rights in wave of gay persecution

Paul Crick

The LGBTI community in Chechnya has been hit by a renewed crackdown, following what’s been described as an ‘anti-gay purge’ in 2017. The NGO, Russian LGBT Network, reports that authorities in the Russian republic detained at least 40 individuals in the city of Argun earlier this year, where they were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. Victims had their passports confiscated to prevent them leaving the country and were being unlawfully held in several detention camps, it says.

It comes after dozens of gay men were reportedly held in extrajudicial detention and tortured as part of a state-run campaign in Chechnya two years ago.

The attacks are emblematic of how many people in the LGBTI community across Central Asia live under daily threat of discrimination, persecution, violence and imprisonment, despite legal frameworks appearing to offer some protection.

Michael Kirby, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, says the situation ‘provides a sobering story on how things can get worse in the field of human rights rather than better’.

Such actions are ‘violations of fundamental, non-derogable international human rights,’ adds Federica D’Alessandra, Co-Chair of the IBA Human Rights Law Committee and founding Executive Director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics Law and Armed Conflict.

Chechnya, and its leader Ramzan Kadyrov, has consistently denied allegations of illegal detentions and human rights abuses. The government has repeatedly claimed Chechnya has no gay population at all.

Same-sex relationships are legal in all but two countries in Central Asia for men – Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – and seemingly all countries for women (though the situation for women in Uzbekistan remains unclear). However, few, if any, countries in the region have laws in place to outlaw LGBTI discrimination, and same-sex marriage is illegal throughout the region. Gender reassignment is legal in many of the countries, but is socially unacceptable, and the transgender community is regularly subjected to violence.

There are no guarantees of rights and mechanisms of protecting LGBT people, because violations are committed by the law enforcement bodies

Dilrabo Samadova
Chair, Tajikistan’s Office for Civil Freedoms

The onus is on countries to abide by their international human rights obligations or be held to account. As D’Alessandra says of Chechnya: ‘The international community should apply all forms of pressure, including on Russia, to compel compliance and ensure the safety of the LGBTI community anywhere on its territory.’

But it may be more complicated in practice. Leo Raznovich, an officer with the IBA LGBTI Law Committee, says LGBTI people in the region lack resources. ‘Many funds available to them are tied up to what our agenda is in the West,’ he says. ‘The issues that these incidents raise are not Eastern or Western issues, they constitute a humanitarian crisis, which needs to be tackled as such.’

The LGBTI community across Central Asia continues to suffer persecution to a greater or lesser extent. In January 2019, Uzbekistan stated that it would implement hundreds of human rights recommendations made by the UN Human Rights Council, but would stop short of decriminalising homosexuality, calling it irrelevant to its society. Human Rights Watch paints a dark picture of the situation in Kazakhstan: ‘In the rare cases when [LGBTI] victims report abuses or seek social services, official responses are inadequate.’

Samed Rahimli, a human rights lawyer in Baku, Azerbaijan, tells Global Insight that the LGBTI community there is very vulnerable. If they come out, they are liable to lose jobs and family support, and live an underground life. The authorities in Azerbaijan maintain what Rahimli calls ‘an ambiguous attitude: the political elite ignores them and law enforcement agencies initiate unofficial de facto prosecutions’.

In a 2017 crackdown in Azerbaijan, 83 LGBTI individuals were detained and charged with administrative offences, mainly failure to obey a police officer. More than 50 of those arrested were sentenced to between five and 30 days in jail, and 18 were each fined AZN 200 (about £88). Nearly all of those arrested allege ill treatment in detention.

Dilrabo Samadova, Chair of the Tajikistan NGO, the Office for Civil Freedoms, says pressure is applied to the LGBTI community in a number of ways, including blackmail, extortion, insults, intimidation, arbitrary detentions and torture. ‘Several organisations working with vulnerable populations, including LGBT people, have been [removed] under various pretexts because of their activities,’ she says. The authorities in Tajikistan have kept a special registry of LGBTI people since 2017, she adds, exposing hundreds of individuals to the risk of detention and extortion by police.

‘There are no guarantees of rights and mechanisms of protecting LGBT people, because all violations are committed by the law enforcement bodies,’ says Samadova.

Russia has been cautious in its public response to the crackdown. But, as D’Alessandra notes, ‘Chechnya, being a federal subject of Russia, is under the jurisdiction of a number of international treaties ratified by Russia that protect these rights’.

Sophie in ’t Veld MEP, Vice-President of the European Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, said in January: ‘We cannot wait until more people are detained, tortured and killed. It is about time Russia listens to the multiple recommendations and requests from the international community, starts an investigation, and puts an end to these human rights violations.’ So far, there has been little or no response from Russia to such calls.

Similarly, authorities in Tajikistan have ignored calls from the UN to take control of LGBTI rights. The Tajikistan Ombudsman responded that Tajikistan is not ready to implement these recommendations due to ‘traditional values’.

Rahimli believes the conservative nature of Azerbaijani society, together with the fact that democratisation in civic society overshadows the problems faced by the LGBTI community, means there is little hope of reform.

Kirby agrees, explaining that so long as adult, private, consensual sexual activity is criminalised and punished, ‘it is impossible or extremely difficult to make much progress on reducing social discrimination and attitudinal change’.