Gays Hide, Flee Ex-Soviet Republics As LGBT Crackdowns Turn Brutal

Rights groups say Russia’s 2013 gay "propaganda" law has encouraged violence and state crackdowns against LGBT communities in other former Soviet republics. (RFE/RL Graphics)

BAKU -- Niko, a 27-year-old gay epileptic from Baku, recalls being beaten, tortured with electric shocks, and raped by four police officers who detained him during a crackdown on homosexuals in Azerbaijan.

“They raped me anally and orally,” says Niko, who asks that his real name not be used because he fears for his life. “The police forced me to swallow their sperm.”

Then, he says, he was raped with a police truncheon. “They rammed the truncheon in my anus and I had an epileptic seizure,” Niko says. “I don’t remember what happened after that. When I woke up, I wasn’t even able to walk.”

For the next 10 days, Niko remained in custody, where he says the torture continued. After his release in late September, he spent nearly two months trying to stay out of the sight of police who knew about his sexual orientation. But by mid-November, Niko says, he had been victimized four more times by police officers extorting bribes from him or forcing him to perform oral sex in order to avoid being charged again with "refusing police orders."

'They Gave Me Electric Shocks' -- Accounts Of LGBT Crackdown In Azerbaijan

Still recovering from shock, he tells RFE/RL about his desperation to leave Azerbaijan and start a new life elsewhere. International human rights groups say Azerbaijan’s crackdown echoes similar roundups during 2017 in Russia’s North Caucasus region of Chechnya.

In both places, suspected homosexuals were detained, brutally abused, and forced to name other gays who, in many cases, received similar treatment as the crackdowns widened.

Amnesty International says it thinks about 100 homosexuals were rounded up in Azerbaijan’s operation during the last half of September, which the government said was necessary to contain sexually transmitted diseases and improve “morality.”

In Chechnya, the rights group says, well over 100 people were detained and tortured, and at least three were killed. Chechnya’s government denies the roundups ever happened there. But Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) say evidence of the Chechnya operations is undeniable -- with reports of the violence shocking the world. Niko tells RFE/RL he was “really shaken” last spring when he first heard about Chechnya’s crackdown. "I felt really terrible,” he says. “There was a sudden fear in my heart. But I didn’t think it would happen in Azerbaijan to the same extent. I never imagined the recent crackdown here could be that brutal."

Growing Repression, Violence

Rights groups say the increased repression and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in former Soviet republics has been encouraged by Russia’s 2013 law criminalizing the distribution to minors of “distorted ideas about the equal social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relationships.”

Life As A Lesbian In Baku

In October, in the Samara region on Russia's Volga River, 27-year-old LGBT rights activist Yevdokia Romanova was convicted and fined under what critics have dubbed the "gay propaganda” law -- despite a June ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that the legislation violates the European Convention on Human Rights.

Romanova had posted links on social media to the website of a LGBT rights youth coalition and Western reports on the LGBT movement -- including a BuzzFeed article about an LGBT-rights protest in St. Petersburg. Denis Krivosheyev, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, describes Romanova’s case as “a sad illustration of the desperate circumstances currently faced” by LGBT activists in Russia.

INFOGRAPHIC: LGBT Rights Around The Globe (click to view)

“Even the simple freedom to share an online story with friends is now limited by legislation that is blatantly discriminatory and homophobic,” Krivosheyev says. Krivosheyev tells RFE/RL that the 2013 law initially encouraged a wave of homophobic attacks across Russia that, by 2017, had spread to other former Soviet republics in the form of official crackdowns, discrimination, and mob violence. In Uzbekistan, where homosexuality is a crime, self-declared “vigilantes” have posed on social media to win the trust of gay men and lure them to meeting places.

Erbulat, a gay friend of the victim of one attack that was recorded and posted online by a homophobic gang, tells RFE/RL there have been many similar attacks recently against homosexuals in Uzbekistan but victims are scared to call police.

"I also was attacked, threatened, and humiliated in such a video," Erbulat says. "I barely escaped them alive. But if I had reported that to the police, they would have laughed at me. They're homophobes, too."

Although Tajikistan rescinded its Soviet-era law against homosexuality in 1998, its government continues to subject gay men to discrimination and rights abuses. It also has forced groups that defend gay rights to stop operating.

In October, the Tajik Prosecutor-General’s Office announced it had compiled a list of what it said were 367 gay men and women in the country “in order to protect their safety and to prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.”

'I Could Barely Crawl': Gay Russian Alleges Torture In Chechnya

But Firuz, a 30-year-old gay man from Dushanbe, tells RFE/RL the LGBT community fears Tajikistan’s “gay registry” will be used for future crackdowns like those in Chechnya and Azerbaijan.

“The government’s mind-set is above the law in this situation. They answer only to themselves,” says Firuz, who was added to the registry and underwent forced medical examinations after he was detained during a police raid on a Dushanbe nightclub.