For Magomed, a 35-year-old gay man from Russia’s Chechnya republic, his sexual orientation very nearly proved to be his death sentence. As long as he remains in Russia, it could still. “I cannot go back. And it’s not safe here, either,” he said.
Magomed, whose name was changed to protect his identity, spoke to Human Rights Watch activists about the systematic persecution of gay men in Chechnya for the NGO’s report “Russia: Anti-Gay Purge in Chechnya,” which was released today. He himself had been detained and tortured by police for 11 days in a secret detention center before being released and fleeing Chechnya for another region. “They have long arms and they can find me and the others anywhere in Russia, just give them time,” Magomed told Human Rights Watch.
In February, security officials in Chechnya, which has become an ultraconservative Muslim society under strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov, reportedly started rounding up hundreds of gay men and taking them to detention centers, where they tortured and humiliated them. Human Rights Watch reports that three men were killed. In combination with deaths confirmed by Novaya Gazeta, the independent newspaper that first broke the story, that means at least six men have been killed in connection with Chechnya’s anti-gay witchhunt.
Every group that worked with gay men fleeing Chechnya told me none are willing to speak to the media. If their identity becomes known to Chechen officials, they could be hunted down.
Russian authorities have begun an investigation of anti-gay crimes in Chechnya, causing the campaign of mass arrests and torture to come to a halt. But Chechen officials have been stonewalling the inquiry, and it remains to be seen if the Kremlin has the political will to bring perpetrators to justice. “After so many years of almost absolute impunity [for Chechnya’s rulers], I can’t be too optimistic…the government will actually budge to get to the end of this investigation,” said Human Rights Watch’s Tanya Lokshina.
If the investigation bogs down or stops due to political reasons, the anti-gay campaign could begin again. In that case, Chechen authorities would act vengefully because of the scandal, according to Yelena Milashina, the Novaya Gazeta journalist who has been covering the issue. “The threat is very high, and we know that detentions are going on,” she said. “Gays are still criminals for the Chechen leadership.”
Along with testimony from four gay men who had fled the repressions in Chechnya, the new report includes evidence that Chechnya’s highest leadership has been involved in the persecution of gays. Several victims told Human Rights Watch that Magomed “Lord” Daudov, speaker of the Chechen parliament and the right-hand man Kadyrov, was present during the torture of gay men and added his own insults to the humiliating comments to which agents subjected their captives.
According to the report, the anti-gay campaign began after police reported to Daudov that they had found photographs and messages on the phone of a detained man that indicated he was gay. That led security officials to torturing him and others and forcing them to confess to being gay and divulge names of gay acquaintances. Besides beatings, they clipped wires from electrocution devices to victims’ fingers, toes or earlobes and gave them powerful shocks until they fainted. The process repeated after victims were revived. Police also checked captives’ phones for pictures, messages and contacts that could lead them to other gay men, fueling a vicious chain of illegal detentions.
“Every day it was torture, torture and more torture,” Magomed said. “We were left in peace only at night. They electrocuted us, beat us with pipes, kicked us and punched us. They made other inmates beat us, they called us names, spat in our faces. They humiliated us so badly that the humiliation was, in a sense, worse than physical abuse.”
After 11 days of torture, security officials released Magomed—but freedom came at a bitter price. Having assembled victims’ families in a hall, they forced each man to confess his sexual orientation, then publicly shamed both the victim and his family. The implication was unmistakable: Relatives should remove the stain on their family through an “honor killing.”
Only one Western country has given visas to men who fled Chechnya.
“Our relatives were in tears and they were telling them, ‘You know what to do now.’ They didn’t say ‘kill’ but it was all crystal clear,” Magomed said. Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that at least two men were killed by their relatives after being released.
Meeting Vladimir Putin last month, Kadyrov said reports of people being detained or killed in Chechnya were “unconfirmed facts.” At a special gathering of 15,000 people in Grozny, religious leaders passed a resolution against the *Novaya Gazeta *journalists promising that “retribution will reach the true instigators wherever they may be, with no time limitations.”
Novaya Gazeta has also been hit with a DDoS attack, and envelopes with unidentified white powder arrived at its office from an address in Chechnya. Milashina has moved abroad for fear of her own safety, although she continues to cover the issue. Another Novaya Gazeta reporter who reported on Chechnya, Anna Politkovskaya, was killed with gunshots to the chest and head in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building in 2006.
Although Putin’s spokesman brushed off the allegations as “phantom complaints” in April, the Russian authorities finally began an investigation this month amid mounting international pressure. Novaya Gazeta reported this week that Chechen officials have refused to speak with investigators and the detainment center in Argun, Chechnya, where Magomed was held, was filled with construction waste before investigators arrived.
Peskov has said there is no reason to distrust Kadyrov until one of the victims files an official complaint of wrongdoing. But as a reporter who has tried to speak with Chechen refugees, I can assure Peskov that they guard their identities and whereabouts closely, based on very real safety concerns. Every group that worked with gay men fleeing Chechnya told me that none of them are not willing to speak to the media at this time. If their identity becomes known to Chechen officials, they could be hunted down in other regions. Already, Novaya Gazeta has reported that one of the gay men who had been detained and released was later killed in a different part of Russia.
Pressure would also be put on their relatives. Currently, Chechen officials are reportedly forcing families of men who fled to sign statements that they have no complaints with the authorities.
All victims who spoke with Human Rights Watch said they could not file official complaints while they remain in Russia due to the danger of retaliation. Most said they would not file a complaint even from abroad for fear their families would be publicly shamed.
Gay men from Chechnya will only be safe once they leave Russia entirely, but so far, only nine have been able to do so, according to LGBT Network. Only one Western country has granted visas to men who fled Chechnya, according to Igor Kochetkov of LGBT Network. He called on the United States and other countries to accept gay Chechen refugees. “Gays who flee from persecution are witnesses of crimes against humanity,” he said. “The Chechen authorities don’t want such witnesses.”