Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov has used a meeting with Vladimir Putin to deny reports of an anti-gay purge in the southern Russian republic he runs.
The newspaper Novaya Gazeta alleges that more than 100 Chechen men suspected of being gay have been rounded up and at least three killed. Despite Kadyrov’s denial, evidence of a massive campaign against gay men is building.
During a televised meeting on Wednesday evening in the Kremlin, Kadyrov raised the “provocative articles about the Chechen Republic, the supposed events … the supposed detentions.” Putin did not ask him to clarify his comments or ask follow-up questions, which made the meeting look more like a public show of support in the face of international criticism.
The Guardian has spoken to four men who have been involved in the anti-gay round-up in different ways, including one man who talked about being tortured with electric shocks during more than a week in which he was held in captivity with more than a dozen other suspected gay men.
This week, the Guardian spoke to two men who had been targeted for being gay. Both were outside Chechnya, having already fled the republic, but neither wanted their names, ages or any other identifying factors to be made public, citing a fear of Chechen authorities and their own families.
Ismail (not his real name) said he was first set up by Chechen officials back in October. He exchanged photographs with a man on social media and the men agreed to meet for a date. When they met, instead of taking Ismail to his country house as promised, the man drove him to a forest clearing, where three men in military uniform stripped him naked and beat him up, while another filmed.
“They shouted insults at me, they broke my jaw and left me covered in blood,” he said. “They told me I had to pay them a huge bribe or they’d publish the video online and tell my family I was gay.”
Ismail said he paid the bribe, but when rumours began swirling around Chechnya of the gay persecutions, he fled. Police have been to his family home, demanding to know where he is. They told his mother he was gay, causing a huge family scandal, and Ismail now fears his own relatives may now be on the hunt for him and want to kill him.
The second man was stopped at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of the capital city, Grozny, in late March. When his documents were checked, he appeared to be on a list and was shoved into a police car. He overheard the men arresting him say that they had “found one of those who takes it from behind”.
On arrival at the police station, he was searched and one of the men found medical documents in his bag detailing his HIV positive status. “He took pity on me and told me to run, to leave Chechnya and to never come back,” he said. He fled and he is now outside Chechnya. His family believe he has gone to find work.
Many Chechen gay men who have fled and are in Russia say they fear reprisals. Some European countries have agreed to expedite visas for a small number of the men.
Novaya Gazeta, the Russian newspaper which first broke the story, has been the subject of threats from Chechen Islamic and societal leaders. The paper has received two suspicious envelopes containing white powder.
A gathering in Grozny’s main mosque of 15,000 people passed a resolution which said: “The centuries-old traditions of Chechen society, the dignity of Chechen men, and our faith have all been insulted, and we promise that those behind it will face reprisals, whoever they are and wherever they are.”
Kadyrov said during his meeting with Putin that it was “unthinkable” that anyone in Chechnya would threaten journalists. However, given a history of attacks on critics of the Chechen leader, the newspaper is taking the threats seriously. The journalist who broke the story, Elena Milashina, has said she will leave Russia for a period.
Russian authorities have said they will investigate the allegations if victims come forward, but the men who spoke to the Guardian said they were too scared to speak out without guarantees of safety.
Previously, Kadyrov’s spokesman Alvi Karimov denied the reports of the purge, saying there were no gay people in Chechnya. “If there were such people in Chechnya, law enforcement agencies wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning,” he said.
Kadyrov told Putin it was “embarrassing even to speak” about the issue, apparently alluding to the presence of gay men in Chechnya, but assured him that the reports were all lies. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Kadyrov assured Putin that the reports were “slanderous”.
However, the Guardian understands that some people in the Kremlin have been alarmed by the reports and are attempting to investigate whether they are true, independently of the official enquiry.