You could smell this one coming. Last year, horrific reports emerged from the southern Russian republic of Chechnya that authorities were rounding up gays in detainment camps and subjecting them to torture —the first time this kind of thing has happened in Europe since Nazi Germany. Now the reign of terror is being extended to drug users and small-time dealers, who are facing grisly torture at the hands of Chechen security forces as part of the same ultra-puritanical campaign. Reports describe electric current being applied to suspects’ fingertips to induce them to “confess.” No one has survived such questioning without eventually admitting their crime, the victims were told.
This was brought to light by a Jan. 16 account in Britain’s The Independent, which translated journalism from the Russian publication Republic, one of the courageous few free media voices in Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian state. According to Republic’s investigation, at least dozens and possibly hundreds of arbitrary arrests of drug suspects have been carried out in Chechnya over recent months, often in resulting torture and “extreme interrogation techniques”—in an almost an exact mirror of what was called the “gay purge.”
The official number of drug arrests in Chechnya last year is given as 507, but the rate has escalated in recent months, in what appears to be a coordinated campaign of repression.
Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov, a key ally of Putin, won Moscow’s support by putting down the Islamist insurgents and separatists in the Caucasus republic. But Kadyrov’s regime is being given free rein to impose his own brand of Islamist rule in Chechnya as the price of his loyalty to Moscow. Ironically (if predictably), his rhetoric conflates drug-users and jihadi terrorists (who are, needless to say, just as zealously anti-drug as he is).
“It is one and the same thing,” he proclaimed in one speech. “The drug user is no less of a source of evil than the terrorist, because he hooks the youth into dependence, and they are the future of our republic.”
In September 2016, Kadyrov called on his security forces to kill drug users on sight—a stance also being popularized by such figures as the Philippines’ would-be dictator Rodrigo Duterte.
“Shoot them, to hell with them,” he was quoted as saying. “Nothing matters—the law, no law. Shoot them, do you understand? As-salaam Alaikum! That’s law for you!” (Salaam Alaikum is Arabic for farewell, or “Go in peace”—obviously intended with sinister sarcasm here.)
Also predictably, it seems like many of those detained and tortured as drug suspects are actually critics of the Kadyrov regime. This certainly seems to be the case in the Jan. 9 arrest of Oyub Titiev, 60, one of Chechnya’s most prominent human rights activists. Police say they found 180 grams of cannabis in his car.
Human Rights Watch calls the marijuana charges against Titiev “blatantly fabricated,” and expresses fears for his safety. HRW notes that Titiev took over leadership of human rights organization Memorial after the 2009 kidnapping and murder of his colleague in the group, Natalia Estemirova. And a week after Titiev’s arrest, masked assailants set fire to Memorial’s local office in Ingushetia—a 90-minute drive from Chechnya’s capital Grozny, destroying most of it.
Also after Titiev’s arrest, Chechen police harassed the landlord of Memorial’s Grozny office, warning her, “Don’t you know who you’re renting to?” And right on cue, Kadyrov unleashed a stream of invective against Memorial, calling them hired “snitches” and “enemies of the people” who “have no Motherland, no ethnicity, no religion…” For good measure, he added: “Well, I will tell you how we are going to break the spine of our enemies.”
Finally, in case there was any ambiguity that Titiev’s pot bust was anything other than political persecution, someone set fire to the car of one of Memorial’s drivers. This attack was accompanied by repeated text messages to Memorial’s mobile phone saying, “You’re walking on the edge of the abyss. Shut down! Next time we’ll burn your office, with you inside. The car is just a warning.”
Just to complete the sense of deja vu, Human Rights Watch also notes that after the “gay purge” last year, Chechnya’s official news agency, Grozny Info, quoted numerous local commentators bashing the newspaper that broke that story, Novaya Gazeta as “enemies” of Chechnya and Russia, accusing them of attempting to “foster sodomy,” and undermine “traditional values.”
After more than a decade of ruling Chechnya, Kadyrov has transformed the republic into what some call “a totalitarian state within a state.” If the petty little police state in the Chechen Republic is any indication of where Putin’s Russia is headed generally, tokers, gays and cultural non-conformists as well as political dissidents had better beware.