By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK, Sept 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than two dozen gay and bisexual Chechen men and women have been granted asylum in Canada after being rescued from persecution in their country through a network of safehouses, the group that coordinated the operation said on Friday.
Twenty-two of the 31 men and women who were granted refuge have already arrived in Canada following a clandestine operation that appeared to have angered Russian authorities, it said.
Canadian advocacy group Rainbow Railroad said the Chechens, who were fleeing a violent crackdown against them in the Russian republic, had initially been sheltered in Russian safehouses.
Rainbow Railroad helped the people flee Chechnya, in southern Russia, through a global network of safe routes, the group said.
They were granted asylum as early as June but the rescue efforts were kept under wraps until last week for safety reasons, Kimahli Powell, Rainbow Railroad's head, said by phone.
But the time had finally come to make their story public in part to allow the victims to speak out "to keep the Russian government and the Chechen government on account," said Powell.
Asked for comment, Rémi Larivière, a spokesman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said: "For reasons of operational security, we are unable to provide information or comment on media reports."
The Russian embassy in Ottawa did not immediately respond to a request for comments, but a spokesman was quoted in Canadian media as saying: "any legal irregularities, if proven true, shall be duly investigated."
Powell said most of the rescued Chechens were men, all in their early 20s.
Rainbow Railroad first called on the Canadian government in April to open its doors to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people from Chechnya following Russian media reports of police rounding up suspected homosexuals.
The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported in April that authorities in Chechnya had rounded up over 100 gay men or men believed to be gay and tortured them. At least three of the men had been killed, the newspaper reported.
Chechnya's Moscow-backed president Ramzan Kadyrov denies human rights are routinely flouted in the mainly Muslim region. His spokesman has said there could be no attacks on gay men because there were no such people in Chechnya.
Same-sex sexual activity is not a crime in Russia, but a law limiting the dissemination of information on LGBT issues to young people has emboldened people to grow violent toward LGBT people, rights advocates say.
Powell said he recalled how one of the Chechens, a man he had previously met at a safe house in Russia, arrived in Canada just ahead of Toronto's LGBT Pride parade.
"We let him know that there were festivities happening in the gay village and he wanted to check it out," Powell told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"He was nervous about it at first ... But he really enjoyed himself, being proud to be himself during the parade."
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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