After breaking the story about the systemic torture and extrajudicial killings of gay men by Chechen security officials in an unofficial prison outside Grozny, Elena Milashina of the Russian-language Novaya Gazeta newspaper has been forced into hiding.
Faced with a fatwa by Chechen clerics who have vowed to kill the reporter along with any journalists associated with her publication, Milashina recently agreed to speak with VOA from an undisclosed location via Skype.
Like her late colleague Anna Politkovskaya, the Novaya Gazeta investigative reporter who was gunned down in the doorway of her Moscow apartment building in 2006, Milashina has reported on numerous human rights violations under Chechnya's pro-Kremlin leader, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Although the Russian Embassy in Israel on Thursday said a recently completed Kremlin probe had disproved Milashina's report, the gruesome details of covert Chechen concentration camps for gays have been corroborated by multiple international news outlets and human rights organizations.
Saying she was prepared to die in the line of journalistic duty, Milashina told VOA why Chechnya's treatment of gays marked the end of a Kremlin-backed "culture of impunity" that has flourished in the deeply conservative, predominantly Muslim North Caucasus republic, which she describes as Kadyrov's own feudal kingdom.
The following transcript has been edited for brevity.
VOA: As someone who has covered Chechnya since 2004, how does this latest story on Chechen human rights abuses stand apart? What has the impact been regionally?
Elena Milashina (EM): This was about a campaign in Chechnya that was organized in the end of February and lasted throughout the whole of March against men in Chechnya who were suspected of being gay. And this was the only reason they were legally detained and put in secret prisons and tortured, and some of them were killed. The only reason why they were tortured with electricity twice daily was to get information about other gays. This is the only reason. First of all, we were able to save a lot of people by eventually publishing a hotline for victims, through which some gay man began applying for help. So far, we've saved more than 100 people who were tortured and detained and had other problems with the Chechen police. Now they're in a safe place, and now we're trying to help them escape Russia. That's the main result.
The other result is that the whole world, through this story, has refocused on human rights [abuses against] the Chechen people, and what kind of regime the Kremlin has established there over the past decade. It has also put pressure on the Russian government to start preliminary steps toward an investigation that may lead to a criminal case, which would be the first time that's happened since Kadyrov has ruled over Chechnya. And that's the biggest result.
VOA: Do you think most people understand what is happening in Chechnya? That it has basically become a state within a state?
EM: In Russia, people understand. And that's why Chechnya continues to be a high-level news item in Russian media. Because people in Russia are very afraid of Kadyrov's Chechen regime; they're afraid of Kadyrov himself and his [officials], their ability to go anywhere and commit crimes without punishment. This fear explains their interest in news from Chechnya, and the Russian government understands this. I'm very sure about this.
As for international society and governments: Just over the past two years we've seen this huge number of Chechen refugees trying to get to Europe. And European countries won't give them visas. They don't want to let them in. [European officials] were saying, actually, that Chechnya is a peaceful region, that there is no war there, everything is good, that life is OK, and so [the refugees] should go back. Now, after this story, nobody is saying this anymore.
VOA: How are gay people living today in Chechnya now? Those who didn't escape?
EM: They're in hiding. They trust no one, and it's very hard to convince them to contact the hotline we arranged for victims. They're terrified, and I think they're still in grave danger. When Chechen authorities decide to do something, they will do it no matter what. So, if they decide to cleanse Chechen society of gays, they will do it, and nobody can push them not to do this. Even if they're stopped, [Chechen authorities] will wait for a while, then start again. There is a big threat for Chechen gays, and the Chechen gays understand this. That's why a lot of them call us for help, but still there are a lot of gay Chechens in hiding who trust nobody but themselves, who try to manage their problems alone.
VOA: Many people outside Chechnya, accurately or not, still think of Chechnya as only a breeding ground for radical Islamist militants. Some critics of Kadyrov have said he abuses the counterterror mandate to attack anyone he chooses. But does domestic terrorism remain a problem, or is it time to look at this from a different angle?
EM: I would say that this cliche is coming away because the level of terroristic threats have been coming down for the whole North Caucasus region, and we have far fewer attacks than we used to have. And now a lot of Russians are scared of Chechen people, because it's the Russian opinion that Chechens can do anything and get away with it. For Russian society, this is scarier than terrorism.
VOA: You've seen many horrifying stories in Chechnya over the past 12 years — people disappearing, people tortured, families torn apart. As such, did this story still shock you?
EM: For me, it doesn't matter if the person is gay or suspected of being a terrorist or a Salafist or a drug user. I see them all equally because, in Chechnya, all those people can be illegally detained, tortured, even killed. I see how this situation is developing. For me, the attacks on gays by Chechen authorities is a logical end to the culture of impunity. When a lot of other Chechens were detained, tortured, killed — the world was silent. But this crime is something special. We've never had this in Russian history; we've never had this in the history of Russian-Chechen relations — during two wars, even. This is a crime against humanity. Because this was sanctioned by authorities, because it was produced by Chechen police, and because of the motive — that the only guilt of these people is that they are gay — it is an absolutely textbook definition of a crime against humanity. And I don't think Russian authorities understood this from the beginning, but now they're starting to realize that if they won't do anything about this, they are implicitly covering up crimes against humanity. And, if that's the case, nobody can know what's next in Chechnya. As I said, it was a logical, step-by-step situation development in Chechnya. It went from targeting anyone suspected of being terrorists to targeting gays.
VOA: Do you see other groups or minorities being threatened?
EM: It depends on Ramzan Kadyrov, whatever or whomever he would like to target next. If he decides it's Chechen lesbians, then we'll have a campaign against Chechen lesbians. If he decides tomorrow that the target is children whose drawings offend him. ... Anything can be a target, because only one man is deciding. That is the problem of Chechnya. One man can order his police or his army to take, detain and torture people — and for what? For whatever he deems harmful to Chechen traditions.
VOA: About your personal safety: Have things improved? Can you work or even go out in the open?
EM: The problem is that no matter what President Vladimir Putin might tell Ramzan Kadyrov about stopping aggressive behavior toward journalists, we're not sure whether Kadyrov would obey, because of his impunity. So we're not sure about our safety, because we're not sure if [Kadyrov is] even under control. That's why we're deciding to take security measures. I actually moved out of the country for a while. I will definitely continue developing this story on gays in Chechnya, and we'll continue our work covering Chechnya, but we're taking measures.
This report originated in VOA's Russian service.