Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday backed an official check into reported brutal attacks on gay men in Chechnya in his first public comment after German Chancellor Angela Merkel confronted him on the issue.
Putin said he would personally “talk to the prosecutor-general and the interior minister” to ask them to help Kremlin rights ombudswoman Tatiana Moskalkova check the reports which have caused an international scandal.
“I hope the colleagues respond and support you,” Putin told Moskalkova, whose role is to investigate rights abuses but who is widely seen as a loyalist establishment figure.
Merkel at a press conference with Putin in Moscow on Tuesday raised the “very negative reports” and said she had asked Putin to “use his influence to guarantee the rights of minorities.”
While speaking to the Kremlin ombudswoman, Putin referred to the reports as “rumours, you could say, about what is happening in our North Caucasus with people of non-traditional orientation,” using a euphemism meaning gay.
In March, Novaya Gazeta opposition daily reported that Chechen authorities were imprisoning and torturing gay men in the conservative region where homosexuality is taboo and can be punished by killings by relatives.
A group of Chechen men in a safe house close to Moscow later confirmed to AFP that they had fled the region in fear of their lives.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the Putin-loyalist and strongman leader of Chechnya, fiercely denied claims of a crackdown in the socially conservative region while meeting Putin.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov initially downplayed the reports, saying there had been “no confirmation” of violence and arrests. After a delay Russian investigators have said they are probing the allegations.
Moskalkova said last month that there had been no official complaints from victims. But on Friday she said that there needed to be a mechanism for victims to report abuse when they are outside Chechnya and asked Putin to help create a working group to receive such complaints. She stressed that victims’ anonymity will be protected.