July 19, 2017 at 3:37 pm PST | by Michael K. Lavers
State Dept. dodges question about Tillerson’s silence on Chechnya

A State Department spokesperson on July 18, 2017, dodged the Washington Blade’s question about why Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has yet to publicly condemn the crackdown against gay men in Chechnya. (Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert on Tuesday did not say why Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has yet to publicly condemn the ongoing crackdown against gay men in Chechnya.

Nauert noted to the Los Angeles Blade during a press briefing the State Department has urged the Russian government to conduct an investigation into the crackdown.

Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper, in April reported authorities in the semi-autonomous Russian republic in the North Caucuses have arrested more than 100 men because of their sexual orientation — or perceived sexual orientation — since the beginning of the year. At least three of these men reportedly died after their arrest, while others have been beaten and tortured and sent to secret prisons.

“We have called on Russia to hold a federal investigation into that matter,” Nauert told the Blade.

“We have those conversations at the highest levels,” she added, without providing specific details. “Human rights is something that’s very important to us. We continue to speak about that from this position here at the podium and part of my job is speaking on behalf of Secretary Tillerson and speaking on behalf of this department.”

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley in April said the U.S. by the crackdown. U.S. Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) are among the dozens of members of Congress who, along with the Human Rights Campaign and other advocacy groups, have specifically urged Tillerson to publicly condemn it.

Tillerson — who met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other Kremlin officials in Moscow in April — told Cicilline last month during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that he has not discussed the crackdown with Russian officials. A spokesperson for the National Security Council told the Blade he “was not told” that Chechnya “came up” during President Trump’s earlier this month at the G-20 summit in Germany.

The State Department last week expressed concern over reports Chechen authorities killed more than two dozen people who were arrested without charge earlier this year.

Tillerson in January said during his confirmation hearing that U.S. values “don’t accommodate violence or discrimination against anyone.” The former ExxonMobil CEO declined to specifically say whether “gay rights are human rights.”

Tillerson in June issued a Pride month statement that, among other things, noted “LGBTI persons continue to face the threat of violence and discrimination” around the world. Embassies and consulates also that allowed them to recognize Pride month.

“While gay and bisexual men in Chechnya are being detained, tortured and murdered, this administration has failed to raise the issue with the Russian government,” Human Rights Campaign Global Director Ty Cobb told the Blade on Tuesday. “Why?”

Chechen president’s anti-gay comments ‘upsetting’

Tuesday’s briefing took place against the backdrop of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s claim that gay people don’t exist in Chechnya.

“We don’t have these kinds of people here,” said Kadyrov during an interview with “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” that HBO is scheduled to broadcast on Tuesday. “We don’t have any gays. If there are any take them to Canada.”

Kadyrov also described those who have made allegations against his government as “devils” who are “for sale.”

“They are not people,” he told “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.”

Nauert condemned Kadyrov’s comments.

“[They] were very concerning and upsetting to us,” Nauert told the Blade.

Kadyrov is a close ally of Putin. Trump continues to face allegations that his campaign colluded with the Russian government to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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