Ilya and Nohcho, gay men from Chechnya, sought refuge at a house outside the Caucasus region in southern Russia. Both were arrested in a pogrom and tortured. Credit: James Hill for The New York Times
GROZNY, Russia — It was supposed to be a night out. But for the young man who calls himself Maksim, as for scores of other gay men arrested in a pogrom this month in Russia’s Chechnya region, it pivoted into nearly two weeks of beatings and torture.
Maksim said it had started with a chat room conversation with “a very good old friend who is also gay,” and who suggested that they meet at an apartment. When Maksim arrived, however, he was greeted not by his friend but by agents who beat him. Later, they strapped him to a chair, attached electrical wires to his hands with alligator clips and began an interrogation.
“They yelled, ‘Who else do you know?’” Maksim said, and zapped him with current from time to time. “It was unbearably painful; I was hanging on with my last strength,” he added. “But I didn’t tell them anything.”
Gay men have never had an easy life in Chechnya. But the targeted, collective punishment of gays that began last month under its pro-Kremlin leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, is a new turn in the region’s long history of rights abuses.
Novaya Gazeta, an opposition newspaper, first reported the pogrom, saying that at least 100 gay men had been arrested and three killed in the roundup. Human Rights Watch corroborated those findings.
The sweep has been widely condemned by Western governments, the United Nations and rights groups. Activists in Russia have set up an underground network to spirit the victims out of Chechnya and to protect them from potentially violent reprisals from their families and others. The victims use assumed names in their everyday dealings.
The following account is based on interviews with Maksim, who is in his 20s, and two other gay men who were detained by Chechen security agents.
Homosexuality is taboo in Chechnya and the mostly Muslim surrounding areas of the Caucasus region in southern Russia. “This society is highly homophobic,” said Ekaterina L. Sokiryanskaya, Russia project director for the International Crisis Group and an authority on Chechnya. “Homosexuality is condemned. It is believed Islam considers it a great sin.”
Nevertheless, before the crackdown, gay men in Chechnya could at least lead social lives, if heavily closeted ones, Maksim said. They met largely in private chat rooms on social networking sites with names like the Village or What the Mountains Are Silent About.
“When two gay men meet, they don’t tell one another their true names,” Maksim said. Men met at cafes or at apartments rented for a night, he said. “Nobody suspected my sexual orientation, not even my best friends.”
The crackdown began after GayRussia, a rights group based in Moscow, applied for permits for gay pride parades in the Caucasus region, prompting counter protests by religious groups, the men said. In Chechnya, it became something even worse — a mass “prophylactic” cleansing of homosexuals, the security service agents told the gay men as they rounded them up.
The men were held for as little as a day or as long as several weeks, according to Human Rights Watch and to interviews with gay men who later escaped the region. Some “returned to their families barely alive from beatings,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director for Human Rights Watch.
Among the fatalities documented by the organization were one man who succumbed during torture and two others who died in “honor killings” by relatives after the police released them.
“Human Rights Watch has been getting numerous reports about attacks by security services under Ramzan Kadyrov’s control, and those reports are extremely disturbing,” Ms. Lokshina said. “This is another opportunity to reinforce the culture of fear.”
The Chechen authorities’ response to the global outrage over the pogrom has provoked new incredulity. In a telephone interview, Mr. Kadyrov’s spokesman, Alvi Karimov, said the reports of an anti-gay pogrom had to be false because such men did not exist in Chechnya.
“In Grozny, have you ever noticed people who, by their appearance or manners, resemble people who are oriented in the wrong way?” Mr. Karimov asked.
“A policy is developed for a problem,” he said, referring to a report that said the arrests were official policy. “I can officially say there is no policy because there is no problem. If there were a problem, there would be a policy.”
In a televised meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Wednesday, Mr. Kadyrov characterized as “libelous” news reports that the security services in Chechnya had been persecuting gay men.
And on Thursday, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told journalists that the Russian authorities had found no evidence that the Chechen police had arrested gay men.
But it quickly became clear to Maksim and the other men that the Chechen authorities were applying the same tactics used by Russia and by Mr. Kadyrov to suppress an Islamist insurgency in the region over the past decade.
Security service agents took to posing as gay men looking for dates on the Village and in other chat rooms, or persuaded those they had already captured to lure acquaintances, those arrested said in interviews.
Fear spread among gay Chechens. “If they caught him, they will get to me,” said a 20-year-old student who identified himself as Ilya and who was interviewed at a safe location outside Chechnya. Ilya fled days before the police showed up at his home, he learned later.
The authorities briefly detained another young man, who identified himself as Nohcho, after a friend informed on him during an interrogation. “I don’t blame him,” Nohcho said of the friend. “We are not heroes. We’re just gay guys. They starve you. They shock you.”
That, it seems, is essentially what happened to Maksim, who had been corresponding with his gay acquaintance for some time. “One day, he suggested we meet for a drink,” Maksim said. “And because we knew each other a long time, I did not suspect he would be capable of something like this.”
When Maksim entered the apartment where they had agreed to meet, security officers roughed him up. Five other men were already in the apartment, lured by the same ruse, he said. His account of the deception used to detain him was consistent with others documented by Human Rights Watch and with the accounts of the two other gay men interviewed separately for this article.
All six of the men in the apartment were transferred to a makeshift cell in an abandoned building, where they were tortured with electricity one by one, Maksim said.
After 11 days, he was released to a male relative, who was told that Maksim was gay. The security officers told the captives’ male relatives that, if they had any honor, they would kill the young men, Maksim and Ilya said.
Maksim’s father threatened to beat him but refrained when his son showed him the bruises he already had. Instead his father said, “I should kill you.”
Fearing for his life, Maksim turned to a gay rights group, the Russian LGBT Network, based in St. Petersburg, which has established an emergency, round-the-clock volunteer group to help gay men escape the region.
To reassure the victims they are trying to help, the activists have taken extraordinary precautions, operating virtually as a partisan cell behind enemy lines, though they have done nothing illegal under Russian law.
“These people don’t trust anybody,” said Olga Baranova, director of the Moscow Community Center, a support group for gays that is part of the volunteer network helping gay men flee Chechnya.
After arriving at the safe location outside Chechnya, several young men said they had suspected that the volunteer group was also a trap but had no other option but to accept the help, Ms. Baranova said. “They say, ‘We didn’t believe you were real,’” she said. “‘We thought this was the last effort to round up whoever was left.’”
The network bought airplane tickets for Chechen gay men, found safe houses and arranged for doctors to treat those who had been badly beaten.
“Gays in Chechnya and the North Caucasus are in lethal danger,” Igor Kochetkov, director of the Russian LGBT Network, said in a telephone interview. “People whose partners are detained have every reason to believe they will be arrested. It is very hard not to name the names under torture.”
(c) 2017 The New York Times