Being a mouthpiece for the Russian government isn’t always easy.
Maria Zakharova, director of the information and the press at Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs, regularly briefs the international media on major matters of Russian foreign policy, but when asked about the persecution, torture, and killings of gay men in Chechnya, she was apparently clueless as to how to answer—or avoid—the question.
“This is not my issue. I’m not a specialist in that,” she told news anchor Katie Couric in an interview with Yahoo! news, visibly discomforted by the subject.
When Couric pressed further, and asked what Russia was doing about it, Zakharova insisted that all she could say was that Russia was “holding an investigation, as normal countries [are] doing in these cases”:
In recent weeks reports have emerged in the Russian and international media of Chechen authorities rounding up, imprisoning, and torturing gay men. More than 100 men have been arrested and at least three killed in the most recent wave of crackdowns, according to Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta. In Chechen society, where anti-gay sentiment runs deep, gay men mostly hide their sexuality, while authorities deny they exist at all.
Under the leadership of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen republic adheres to strict religious and social codes while remaining under Moscow’s thumb. The territory has struggled through two wars, separatist movements, and Russian aggression since breaking from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Gay men outed by authorities face threats of so-called honor killings by families who feel shamed. One gay man told the Guardian that he left Chechnya and Russia after recently receiving a call from the authorities and his family. “I have not the slightest doubt that my own relatives planned to kill me,” he told the paper. “It was an invitation to an execution.”