Australia has raised concerns with the Kremlin over reports men had been rounded up, tortured and killed as part of an anti-gay crackdown in the semi-autonomous Russian province of Chechnya.
Human Rights Watch says a “brutal campaign” has been waged against LGBTI people in Chechnya in recent weeks, with men severely beaten, “forcibly disappeared” and allegedly murdered on suspicion of being gay.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told Fairfax Media she was concerned about the reports and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had sought assurances from Moscow that no Australians were involved.
“The Australian government is concerned at reports of mass arrests of individuals in the Republic of Chechnya in the Russian Federation due to their perceived or actual sexual orientation,” she said.
“We have raised our concerns directly with the Russian government. We are seeking advice from the Russian government on whether any Australians are involved so that we can offer appropriate consular assistance.”
It is understood representations to Moscow so far have been made at a diplomatic level.
Just as the Trump administration has been lobbied by US congressmen to take a tougher stance against Russia and the Chechen government, Ms Bishop has faced calls from within Parliament to speak out on the issue.
Gay Liberal MP and former human rights commissioner Tim Wilson said he would support Ms Bishop’s efforts “to ensure Australia’s response is effective”, and called for strong condemnation.
“The reports of homosexual men being targeted, detained and tortured in Chechnya are deeply, deeply disturbing,” he said. “We should resolutely condemn any action taken against people simply because of their sexual orientation.”
Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said Labor was “deeply disturbed” by the reports out of Chechnya and had sought an urgent briefing on the matter.
Greens foreign affairs spokesman Scott Ludlam wrote to Ms Bishop: “The Australian government cannot sit idly by whilst state-sponsored hate crimes are perpetrated.”
Reports of gay men being thrown into “concentration camps” first emanated from Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta earlier this month. The US State Department has since confirmed the reports as “numerous” and “credible”.
Human Rights Watch has also said the reports were consistent with information it has received from sources in Chechnya.
A spokesman for the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, denounced the reports as “lies” and claimed there were no gay people in Chechnya.
“You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” spokesman Alvi Karimov told the Russian Interfax news agency, according to The Washington Post.
“If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them since their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.”
State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner said the US was “increasingly concerned” about the situation, and “deeply disturbed” by the response from Chechen leaders.
Fifty members of the US Congress, including Democrats and Republicans, have called on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to go further and publicly condemn the arrests.
Mr Tillerson met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday, but there was no indication the two men discussed the arrests in Chechnya.
Emerging from the two-hour talks, Mr Tillerson said relations between Washington and Moscow “may be at a low point” and “there is a low level of trust between our countries” – a situation he described as untenable between the world’s foremost nuclear powers.