Rome (CNN) – Pope Francis said some of the things he’s heard targeting Jews and the LGBTQ community remind him of the days of Adolf Hitler.
The pope made the remarks Friday while speaking to members of the International Association of Penal Law, which is meeting this week in Rome. “I confess that when I hear some speeches by someone responsible for public order or a government, I am reminded of Hitler’s speeches in 1934 and 1936,” the pope said. “They are typical actions of Nazism which with its persecutions of Jews, gypsies, people of homosexual orientation, represent a negative model ‘par excellence’ of a throwaway culture and a culture of hate.” “That’s what they did then and today these things are resurfacing,” the pope added, calling on his audience “to be vigilant, both in civil and religious society, to avoid any possible compromise…with such degeneration.”
Ramzan Kadyrov rules the Caucasus republic through fear and oppression, amid reports of torture. But those seeking asylum in Europe are not safe, as assassins hunt them down.
Zelimkhan Khangoshvili spent a long time living on the edge. He survived several years of partisan warfare against Russian forces in Chechnya.
“I think he felt much safer here. He was only thinking about building a bright future in Germany, also for the children, not about fighting or going back there,” said Manana Tsatieva, Khangoshvili’s ex-wife, who lives in Germany with their four children.
But it was here, in the centre of Europe, that Khangoshvili finally met his end. Late last month, shortly after leaving home to go to the mosque, a man approached him in Berlin’s Kleiner Tiergarten and shot him twice in the head. He died immediately.
The suspected assassin, who was held by police soon after he was spotted tossing a wig and a gun into the river, has so far maintained his silence. He was travelling on a Russian passport apparently issued under a false identity, boosting suspicions about a hit ordered by Russian security services or by the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Whoever ordered the hit, the killing has once again underlined the perilous position of thousands of Chechens in Europe, fearing retribution from home but unable to win asylum. Germany had rejected a request for asylum for Khangoshvili and his family, and ignored a request to give him protection because of threats on his life.
Khangoshvili was the latest in a trail of killings over the past decade in which insurgency figures and other enemies of Kadyrov have been shot dead, wherever they may be hiding.
In 2009, Kadyrov’s former bodyguard Umar Israilov, who had publicly stated he had been personally tortured by Kadyrov, was shot dead in Vienna. The same year, a political rival to Kadyrov, Sulim Yamadayev, was shot dead in Dubai. Local police accused a Chechen politician close to Kadyrov of supplying the murder weapon. There have been half a dozen prominent Chechens killed in Istanbul over the past decade, with Turkish authorities believing Russian security services are involved. And in Ukraine, where Chechens have joined volunteer battalions fighting pro-Russian forces, the Chechen fighter Amina Okuyeva was killed in an ambush of her car in 2017. Her husband and battalion commander, Adam Osmayev, was wounded but survived. Previously, the pair had been targeted by a Chechen hitman pretending to be a French journalist from Le Monde who had come to interview them.
Chechnya under Kadyrov has become one of the world’s most sinister human rights blackspots. The son of a former independence fighter who switched sides, Kadyrov has used Russian cash to rebuild the republic from the ruins of war and has been given a free hand to rule as he pleases in return for pledging allegiance to Vladimir Putin. In recent years, his security forces have carried out extrajudicial round-ups of a wide array of groups, including suspected militants, government critics, those deemed to have the wrong kind of beard or those who are suspected of being gay. There is widespread testimony of his forces using torture.
Unlike Khangoshvili, the majority of recent Chechen arrivals in Europe have had nothing to do with the former insurgency, and are instead those who have fled threats and torture, leaving their homes as a last resort. But just like Khangoshvili, most of these people struggle to secure asylum, amid increasing hostility to migration in western Europe – especially Muslim migration.
In Germany, Poland and other EU countries, several thousand Chechens are in legal limbo and risk deportation back to Russia, despite having what should be textbook asylum claims: victims of torture with credible threats against their lives and their families. Having made the arduous journey to western Europe, they are often dismissed as economic migrants or potential radical Islamists and told to go back home.
For many Chechen refugees, their ordeal begins in Brest, a Belarussian town close to the border with Poland. This is the closest that Chechens, who usually hold Russian passports, can get to the EU without a visa. Each morning a train leaves Brest on the short ride to the Polish border, usually with around 200 Chechens on board. They are obliged to travel in a separate carriage from other passengers.
At the border, Polish guards pick no more than one family a day whom they allow to place an asylum claim; the rest are simply sent back on the same train. Earlier this summer a Chechen man cut his veins at the border in desperation: his reward was a stamp in his passport automatically disbarring him from any further attempts, said Enira Bronitskaya, a Belarusian rights activist.
Ayub Abumuslimov and his family spent five months living in a cold, damp apartment in Brest, taking the train several times a week in the hope of being selected for asylum. Abumuslimov fled Chechnya after the disappearance of his brother Apti from the town of Shali in January 2017. Apti was kidnapped, along with a neighbour, and taken to the local police station. He was never seen again. Many other people disappeared at the same time, and Apti featured in a list of 27 people published by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta as potential victims of an extrajudicial execution by local law enforcement.
The problems for the rest of the family started when they began writing complaints about what had happened. In June 2017, Abumuslimov said, his car was stopped by men in plain clothes and he was bundled into the back of another car. He was taken to an undisclosed location, where he was held and tortured for more than two months.
Abumuslimov described simple beatings, as well as more sinister treatment, including electric shocks. The worst, he said, was salt torture, where his hands and legs were cuffed and large quantities of salt were poured into his mouth. When he was on the point of choking, he would be given water to drink, causing extreme pain as the salt passed through his body.
“They wanted me to sign a form saying my brother was fighting in Syria and we had no complaints about law enforcement. I refused,” he said. His tormentors wore official police uniforms, though all but two of them were in masks. He was released after more than two months.
It is not possible to verify the details of Abumuslimov’s claims of torture, but they tally with an overwhelming number of similar stories from Chechens unfortunate enough to find themselves in the hands of Kadyrov’s security forces. Maria Książak, a psychologist who is now treating Abumuslimov, said: “He displays all the signs of someone who has been through serious trauma.”
After his release, Abumuslimov and his extended family fled Chechnya for Brest, with the aim of making it to western Europe. It took them five months and 40 train journeys before Polish border guards finally allowed them to file an asylum claim. But even in Poland, he was not safe.
While Polish authorities processed their claim in the town of Biala Podlaska, Abumuslimov gave a media interview about the family’s plight. Shortly afterwards, as he was leaving a supermarket in the town, a car drove up with three people inside. They tried to drag him into the back seat but he fought back, dropped his shopping and ran.
“A couple of days later I was called from a Russian number and a Chechen voice said, ‘You thought we won’t find you in Poland? We’ll find you anywhere.’ ” The family fled to Germany, where they lodged a new asylum claim, but have so far been rejected due to the regulation that asylum seekers must apply in the “first safe country”, which German authorities deem to be Poland.
There are many Chechens with similar stories who do not speak publicly for fear of reprisals against their families back in Chechnya, but Abumuslimov said he and his family want to go public because they refuse to be intimidated, and want to get justice for Apti. They are also launching a case against Russia at the European Court of Human Rights.
“The most unbelievable violations occur on a daily basis in Chechnya, it is by far the worst place in Europe for rights abuses, but because Kadyrov silences the victims of violence, we get a lot of information and evidence that we can’t use, because if we do the whole family will be targeted,” said Russian rights activist Ekaterina Sokirianskaya.
The case of Tumso Abdurakhmanov provides a rare documented insight into the way Kadyrov’s regime threatens Chechens in Europe. Abdurakhmanov was working for a telecommunications company in Grozny, Chechnya when he says he was apprehended as a suspected radical due to his long beard. Authorities insisted he had gone to fight in Syria, a claim he says is false. He fled to Georgia and eventually to Poland, where he started a video blog denouncing Kadyrov’s regime. His YouTube videos got thousands of hits, and soon he received a phone call from Magomed Daudov, Kadyrov’s right-hand man, widely known in Chechnya by his nickname, Lord. Abdurakhmanov recorded the call and posted the recording online.
Aware that Abdurakhmanov was abroad and had a large following, Lord did not immediately resort to threats. Instead, he promised they could discuss issues openly, and cajoled him into returning to Chechnya to help Kadyrov, whom Lord called the “padishah” or “emperor”.
As he failed to make headway, Lord got angrier, demanding to know Abdurakhmanov’s address in Poland. He later publicly declared “blood revenge” on the blogger. Later, Abdurakhmanov’s family back in Chechnya were filmed at the village mosque denouncing their relative, in footage that was posted online. “If they want to, let them kill him or do what they want with him. We have been gathered here today to announce that we no longer accept responsibility for him,” said one of his relatives, in a recording Abdurakhmanov believes was made under duress.
“I know they’re hunting for me. They’re searching for me, so of course I am taking measures to protect myself,” said Abdurakhmanov on a Skype call from an undisclosed location in Poland. Polish authorities have accepted there is a threat to his life in Russia, and have granted asylum to his wife and three children. But they have rejected his claim on national security grounds. The evidence that motivated the decision is classified.
“I can’t defend myself from the accusations because I don’t know what I’m being accused of. I have not been questioned at all; there has not been a single discussion with the authorities,” he said, declining to give his location, except to say he was moving frequently. He said he was now in hiding both from Chechen assassins and from Polish authorities, certain that if they detain him and deport him to Russia, he will be killed.
It appears possible that European asylum authorities are relying on Russian accusations of terrorist leanings when denying asylum applications. It is true that in recent years, hundreds of Chechens became radicalised, with some joining Islamic State and even taking senior positions in the group. It is also true that Chechen and Russian authorities have used accusations of radical Islamism as a pretext to arrest or torture people.
“It is a very complicated situation, but we end up with cases of people who very clearly need asylum and are being rejected,” said Sokirianskaya.
Tsatieva, ex-wife of Khangoshvili, hopes that his murder may finally prompt German authorities to positively assess her asylum claim and those of her children. “It’s a very difficult time for me and the children. We are afraid of what may happen next, and there is still no decision regarding our asylum in Germany.”
Książak, who has treated Chechen and other victims of torture for more than two decades, said removing the threat of deportation from traumatised refugees was the best way to help them recover and integrate. “When protection to torture survivors is finally granted, the fears that haunted them slowly dissolve. Trust and family relations improve and social integration follows. But if they live in constant fear it is very hard for them to recover.”
Chechnya’s troubled history. Chechnya’s history over the past three decades has been both tragic and tangled, as the original fight for independence from Russia in the 1990s fragmented.
When Vladimir Putin first came to power in Russia in 1999, he launched the second Chechen war with a ruthless air campaign. Russia won back control of the region but at a terrible human cost.
The Kremlin put Akhmad Kadyrov, a rebel who switched sides, in charge of the region. After he was killed in 2004, his son Ramzan took over and has run Chechnya ever since, rebuilding the region with Moscow’s roubles and given free rein to establish a legal grey zone where his word is law and a cult of personality has flourished.
The insurgency split, with those in favour of a secular independent Chechnya mostly moving to Europe and the remaining rebels becoming more Islamist and using terrorist methods. By 2007, Chechen fighters had rebranded their movement as a “Caucasus emirate”, seeking to adopt sharia law across the whole region and later allying with Islamic State. Kadyrov has used this to paint all opposition to him as radical Islamist.
As the years have gone by, his security forces have acted with ever more impunity against his real and perceived enemies.
Grozny today is unrecognisable from the devastated shell of a city left after the two wars: shiny new high-rises are lit with neon and the central thoroughfare is called Putin Avenue. Portraits of Kadyrov and his slain father adorn many buildings, and a parade of western celebrities have visited and professed their admiration for Kadyrov. But behind the façade, an atmosphere of fear prevails.
On October 25, a report (part 1 and part 2)from the American television station ABC about gays in Chechnya was released. The film crew interviewed several homosexuals who had to flee abroad because of the persecution and torture they suffered in the republic (Novaya Gazeta was first told about this in April 2017). During an interview with Chechen police chief Apti Alaudinov in a Grozny prison, ABC correspondent James Longman suddenly asked what his interlocutor would have thought if Longman had told him that he was gay. Although Alaudinov did not do anything special in response – he just laughed out loud, the recording of this conversation was widely distributed in the Russian media. In general, Longman has long been openly declaring his homosexuality. Meduza spoke with a journalist about what tricks the ABC crew had to go to make such a report in Chechnya – and why this conversation with Alaudinov was needed.
How long did it take to prepare a report from Chechnya?
About a year. We started looking for victims living in different countries through representatives of the LGBT support network Rainbow Railroad in Moscow and activists; to persuade our heroes to give us an interview. It was necessary to make sure that we would not expose them to additional danger, and this is a rather lengthy process. It should be noted that many of these young people are still severely traumatized by their experience, and it was important for us to make sure that we would not do them too much harm. We talked to people in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and North America, so we had to do a lot of work in different parts of the world.
How difficult was it to persuade the characters in an interview – and not just anonymously, but also, like Amin Dzhabrailov, openly, with a face in the frame and name?
Amin decided to publicly announce his story independently of us, and we already saw an interview with him for the Canadian television company CBC a couple of weeks before our conversation with him. Prior to that, he had already given an interview to the media in 2017, but anonymously. And after the case of Maxim [Lapunov] was closed, Amin decided that the only way to pay attention to what was happening in Chechnya was to speak out publicly that anonymity no longer works.
But Amin is the only one who agreed to talk to us under his name and not hiding his face. Absolutely everyone else was scared to death that they could be watched. The Guardian recently reported on Chechen death squads in Europe. I think that this is an exaggeration, but at least they are afraid that they will be recognized by their family members or distant acquaintances. The fact is that the Chechen diaspora abroad is quite extensive due to the recent history of this region. Therefore, it seems that they have long arms. And Amin, for example, receives threats every day both from Chechnya and from Chechens living abroad. So they are not that completely safe, even after leaving Chechnya.
In total, we contacted nine or ten victims, of whom four agreed to an interview. We interviewed some, but after that they began to fear for their safety, so we did not start broadcasting them. For example, we met with a group of gays in Belgium who only recently managed to leave Chechnya, and they were still very afraid for their safety. But I spent the whole weekend with them, went with them to the Antwerp Pride, and it was a strong impression – how these young people, just from Chechnya, march along with everyone at the pride.
What additional security measures did you have to take to preserve the anonymity of the heroes?
In Chechnya, we had one shoot of an interview with a hero, and I did not participate in it. They explained to us that if we are going to interview authorities, we will have to talk to the victims of the persecution on another visit, because we will most likely be under surveillance. Of course, we have accepted these conditions. We did not speak with our heroes either by phone or by email – only in secure messengers. Well, and a lot of such nuances. And, of course, I had to not only hide the faces of the heroes, but also change their voice.
But this episode, in which you tell [the first deputy minister of internal affairs of Chechnya] Apti Alaudinov about your own homosexuality, – how did this come about? And what kind of reaction did you expect?
In general, this whole evening in Grozny is a complete surprise. Actually, we did not plan to meet with him. We had a very official visit to Chechnya: we warned the authorities in advance, did not enter the republic secretly, nothing of the kind. In our application, we wrote that we want to see how Grozny looks in 2019, 20 years after the start of the last war, all in that spirit. But we honestly mentioned that we were going to discuss issues of attacks on gays and other human rights violations in Chechnya.
But the meeting with Alaudinov was completely unplanned. In general, we went to meet with Kheda Saratova, a member of the Human Rights Council under the head of Chechnya, she is working on the problems of radicalizing youth. And here we are sitting in her office, and I say: actually we wanted to meet with someone from the authorities or even go to jail (that in Grozny there is a secret prison in the basement of the threat room in which gays are tortured, Maxim Lapunov told – approx. “Jellyfish”). And she says: “What didn’t you say right away? Now I will arrange a meeting with Apti Alaudinov, he will be here in 20 minutes. “
We think: well, of course, that’s what we believed. But she made a couple of calls, and exactly 20 minutes later, General Alaudinov arrives. We could not believe our eyes. And he drove us all night on Grozny. I think he just saw a great opportunity to PR. Surely he thought: oh, the American television channel in Chechnya, here is a chance to tell his story. In addition, he seemed to us narcissistic, he was clearly flattered that he was being interviewed.
I had no desire to tell anyone in Chechnya or elsewhere that I was gay. I wanted to make a report on this subject, because it seems to me important, regardless of whether I am heterosexual or gay, blue or pink. Yes, I informed the heroes of our interviews about my own homosexuality in order to better get in touch with them. We discussed what it was like to grow up gay. But I did not intend to say anything like that to the Chechen authorities: firstly, it didn’t seem like a safe idea to me, and secondly, I just didn’t want it to turn into a story about myself.
But Alaudinov was surprisingly talkative, including on such topics. And here we are standing in this cell – and I finally decided. I warned the crew in advance about my plans, especially Patrick [Rivell, producer of the ABC channel in Moscow], because he speaks Russian and is better oriented in the situation. In general, I raised this question because they have very specific concepts in Chechnya about who gays are: all these stereotypes that if you are homosexual, then you are not quite a man.
By this moment, we had already been together for about three hours, and it began to seem to me that on a purely human level, I was quite nice to Alaudinov. We exchanged jokes, had fun as much as possible, spent time. And I thought: if I suddenly tell him that I’m gay, maybe this will change his attitude towards homosexuality? In response, he simply laughed out loud. Then I took his hand and laid it on my chest to show him how scared I was – my heart was pounding. But he only laughed even harder. Honestly, this laugh sounded somewhat menacing.
“But he did not jump away from you in horror or disgust?”
“No, he just blushed a lot.” But it seemed to me that he struggled to maintain the image: they say, we do not care whether you are gay or not. And, it seems, he carefully selected expressions, so as not to say anything to the camera that would sound unsightly.
But when I asked him at the end of the evening whether he now thinks that I am less than a man than he, Alaudinov answered: “I’ll tell you honestly, you will never become my friend.” And at that moment, his mask moved for a moment, and I saw that no, he cares, he really hates gays. Of course, this is not proof that he was involved in the torture of gays, but this is a good indicator that he really thinks about them. So, it seems to me, it was a useful experience, although we did not plan anything similar in advance.
“Does it not seem to you that he prepared for such a turn?” You did not indicate your name in the official application for accreditation for this trip? He could google you and decide: oh, this is the same gay journalist who travels everywhere and takes interviews, now we will arrange a Potemkin village for him.
Probably not, because the interview with him was organized literally in 20 minutes, and when Kheda Saratova called him, she said that ABC wants to talk to him without mentioning my name. Perhaps he knew that it was me; in the end, to find out who I am, you don’t need to be a police state, just google my name, I’m openly gay. Maybe he did – but how do you find out?
Of course, the Potemkin village was shown to us, otherwise it cannot be described. Everything was polished to a brilliance, and in the prison where we were brought there was not a single prisoner, and at some point he even said: they say, look how safe it is in Chechnya, there is no crime, nobody even sits in prison !
“Have you done anything like this before?” After all, you traveled a lot around the world, made reports from the Middle East, already being an open gay.
No, although I have been to many countries where it’s dangerous to be openly gay. A few years ago, I was reporting on LGBT refugees from Syria living in Lebanon. In March, I was in Syria, and this is not the place where people are ready to openly talk with you about how they feel about gays. But I didn’t concentrate specifically on the LGBT aspect in my reports, and usually I don’t talk about my personal life.
“Of all the places you’ve been to, where is the most dangerous place to be gay?” Is Chechnya the most dangerous place in the world, or about the level of other countries with homophobic politics?
In Chechnya, this is the worst of all. Yes, there are countries where if you are gay, your family may refuse you, they may even kill you. For example, when I was in Syria, I spoke with young people who were threatened to be killed by their own relatives when they learned about their homosexuality.
But here is a different situation. If what the heroes of our report told us is true, then it turns out that in Chechnya it is the government that is systematically engaged in mass arrests and torture of gays. This is the difference, so I would say that in Chechnya the situation for gays is worse than anywhere else.
Do you think that such reports and international attention will help your heroes and LGBT people in Chechnya in general?
I think the situation is twofold. On the one hand, the Russian authorities are very concerned about how Russia is seen in the rest of the world. On the other hand, only this will not convince them. They have a rather schizophrenic attitude towards the attention of the world media: 50% of the time they say that they do not care what they write about them, and the other 50% they are very worried about what foreigners think.
Reporting alone, like mine, is not enough to change attitudes — more evidence of victims of torture and persecution is needed to make them feel safe enough to make this public. After the release of my report, I already received many messages from young Chechen gays living in Europe or America, they thank me for telling me about what they had to transfer.
When people see that their stories are taken seriously, this can give them confidence. And this is the only way to force a change in attitude in Moscow to the situation of gays in Chechnya. I don’t think it is true that Vladimir Putin is really worried that ABC is thinking about what is happening in Chechnya. My goal is to give confidence to the Chechens themselves. And if my report helps other victims of the persecution to take courage and tell about myself, I will consider my task completed.
Ricky said he had known the man who betrayed him for 10 years.
He was 19 and for most of his life he had lived a relatively sheltered life near Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, the autonomous republic in southern Russia. Ricky– a pseudonym– had known he was gay since his early teens but had almost never dated. His relationships were mostly restricted to a tiny circle of friends who had discovered their sexuality together as they grew up. He was careful, he would normally only meet people 3 or 4 times a-year.
Then one day the police arrived at his work.
“The first day they took me and locked me in the cell in our city police station,” Ricky said. “Then they took me to another place.” After that, the torture began.
“At first, they were just beating me. They punched me and then they hit me with electric shock. They did waterboarding, which was the worst,” Ricky told ABC News in a recent interview.
The police had discovered Ricky because of one his friends. They confronted him with a video passed to them by the friend that showed them together, discussing LGBT issues.
“I gave up then. I really thought they were going to kill me,” Ricky said. “They said it would be better if I was a terrorist than gay.”
Ricky’s ordeal was in mid-2018 and it was a familiar story.
In early 2017, the world had became aware of reports that Chechen authorities were rounding up and torturing dozens of men they suspected of being gay, in what came to be known as a “gay purge”. Over 100 men were reported by rights groups to have been swept up by the security services and taken to police stations and secret prisons. From there, many accounts emerged describing beatings with plastic rods, electrocution, waterboarding. Rights groups have since reported several suspected deaths.
The international outcry to the alleged abuse of the LGBT community in Chechnya was huge — protests were held in cities around the world and Western governments condemned the reports. The Trump administration imposed sanctions on top Chechen officials for their role in the persecution.
Three years later, however, little has changed and no one has been held accountable. Instead, reporting by ABC News and others shows that– while not on the same scale– the detention and torture of LGBT people in Chechnya never really stopped. Nor did it begin in 2017.
In January 2018 Russian LGBT activists reported a fresh wave of detentions, this time also involving gay women. Although far smaller than in 2017, it underlined a grim reality, that the so-called “purges” are in fact more like spikes in what is a routine practice in Chechnya– the detention and torture of men suspected by police of being gay.
For almost a year, ABC News has recorded the stories of LGBT men and women persecuted in Chechnya and the surrounding region, or living in terror of exposure there. The names of most of those interviewed have been changed at their request out of concern the Chechen authorities or their families might harm them.
Their accounts paint a picture of a place where there is now virtually no space to be gay, where dating carries potentially lethal consequences and the suppression of their identity is obligatory for LGBT people.
“Any day in Chechnya you can be taken,” Ricky said. “There is no life.”
‘It’s a dictatorship’.
Chechnya is a republic traumatized by violence. Located on Russia’s southwestern edge in the mountains of the North Caucasus, the area was devastated in two wars between the mid-1990s and later 2000s with Russia. Russian federal troops, crushing a separatist rebellion and then an Islamic insurgency, devastated the republic. Grozny was levelled and hundreds of thousands were killed.
Since 2007, Chechnya has lived under the rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to subdue Chechnya. He has done that, using allegedly savage methods, and in the process Kadyrov has remodelled Chechnya around himself, erecting a police state and a cult of personality built around an obsessive machismo centered on sport, particularly martial arts.
In the majority-Muslim region, with a deeply conservative culture, being gay was never accepted. But under Kadyrov, the suffocating strictures defining Chechen identity have narrowed even further and are sometimes brutally enforced.
“It is a dictatorship,” said Harlem, who fled Chechnya several years ago and now runs LGBT World Beside, an NGO that tries to help gay people leave the Caucasus. “Everything is decided for you. Everyone should live the same way — have a family and be a good example.”
In 2017, that conservative hostility to homosexuality seemed to convert into organised terror, part of a broader conservative campaign that has also targeted drug and alcohol users.
Amin Dzhabrailov, 27, only the second man to come forward publicly about his detention in 2017, told ABC News that armed police took him from the hair salon where he was working. For 14 days, he said, he was held in a basement with several other gay men, taken out for torture sessions, where he was electrocuted and subjected to a mock execution.
“They put me on the wall, put bag on my head,” he remembered. “That guy charged his gun and put [it] right here, on my head. And I started painting the wall with my blood. And he said that it’s my last seconds.”
Almost all the people who have spoken to ABC News said the men who took them were members of Chechnya’s police. They described active attempts to hunt down gay men using informants and surveillance. They said the people who tortured them would demand they names other gay men.
‘For us, it’s crazy that someone among us might be gay’.
Chechen authorities have dismissed the allegations as invented. Kadyrov and other officials have famously said gay men don’t exist in Chechnya.
In reality, Kadyrov’s inner circle have been accused of playing key roles in the 2017 “purge.” Magomed Daudov, Chechnya’s speaker of parliament, known by his nom de guerre, “Lord,” was alleged by Human Rights Watch to have “persuaded the Chechen leadership” to set it in motion. Some victims have told HRW and ABC News that Daudov was personally present in while they were tortured.
When ABC reporters encountered Daudov by chance in their hotel in Grozny, he dismissed the allegations and told said he was “proud” of U.S. sanctions against him (he was sanctioned in 2013 for his alleged role in the kidnapping and torture of a Chechen politician.)
But he and others officials made no attempt to conceal their hostility to LGBT people.
“For us it’s crazy that someone among us might be gay,” Apti Aluadinov, Chechnya’s deputy interior minister and a top commander of its police forces, told ABC News in September. “Ask any Chechen if there is a gay in his family, he will punch you in the face,” Aluadinov said.
Aluadinov, who was also sanctioned in 2013 by the United States over the same case as Daudov, claimed the gay men alleging torture were simply seeking asylum in the West or that they themselves were likely not Chechens. Over several hours he took ABC reporters to a regional police base just outside Grozny, driving them there himself. When the reporters arrived at the base, a 58-man strong garrison was drawn up on the parade ground in full-battle gear. Inside, Aluadinov showed the reporters the empty cells, which were clean and looked rarely used, as though mostly display.
He insisted he couldn’t conceive how a Chechen man could be gay and said it was not him but Chechen society that will not tolerate gay men.
“He is not afraid of me. He is afraid of his own family,” Aluadinov said.
‘I asked them to throw me out the window’.
For LGBT people in Chechnya, a double life is obligatory. The fear is not only of the state but also of their own families and local communities, where homosexuality is perceived as bringing shame. Victims have repeatedly described being handed back over to their families with a suggestion that they kill them themselves and many of speaking anonymously said they feared their relatives would harm them if they found out.
In such circumstances, discussing homosexuality, let alone coming out is impossible. Many LGBT men and woman marry members of the opposite sex, under pressure from their families.
“If men stand out, even with their clothes, it is already a problem,” said Omar, 24.
Omar was still living in Chechnya when ABC News interviewed him (meeting outside the republic to protect his safety). He described a daily sapping fear, where every interaction with the police could carried potentially catastrophic circumstances.
Then during the new wave of arrests last winter, Omar’s mother inadvertently discovered he was gay. She threatened to hand him over to relatives in the security services, he said. For months, Omar he lived in fear he might be about to killed. He eventually sought asylum in Europe.
Ruslan, a bisexual man living in the neighboring republic of Dagestan, where attitudes are very similar to Chechnya, had a wife and a 1-year-old baby when he said his life was destroyed.
Five men lured him to an apartment where they beat him and forced him to admit he was gay on camera. The men demanded a few thousand dollars. When Ruslan couldn’t pay, they posted it on YouTube the next day.
“I asked them to throw me out the window. I asked them just to kill me. But no, they wanted money,” Ruslan said.
‘It’s harder for women because they can’t leave’.
Many LGBT Chechens link the eruption of more systematic violence in the past few years to a worsening atmosphere of homophobia in Russia, signaled by the passing of the notorious so-called “anti-gay propaganda” law in 2013.
That law, which effectively banned public displays of homosexuality, has been criticized by rights groups as green-lighting discrimination and violence against LGBT people.
All over Russia, gay people reported increased hostility. But in Chechnya it seemed to encourage and may have later given cover to extreme violence by the security services.
Before 2016, there was still a tiny but still active underground gay scene in Chechnya.
Tabitha, a young woman who fled that year, told ABC News she would rent apartments in Chechnya to party in. She would gather groups to drive to clubs in nearby regions.
“From around 2009 till around 2014, there were clubs where lesbians could get together, dance, talk,” said Tabitha. “But they have closed now. In fact, all clubs have closed there, really.”
“People are afraid now,” she said. “The police have ears everywhere — in hotels, there are cameras, microphones,” she said. Most lesbian’s romantic lives are reduced to talking on online messenger services, she said, or meeting in cafe.
In some ways life in Chechnya, where women are already face restrictions, is even harder for gay women.
“Men have more freedom, but they have more threats. It’s harder for women spiritually,” said Tabitha. “It’s harder for women because they can’t leave, they can’t go anywhere.”
‘I’m proud’. Despite the international outcry, Russia has mostly turned away criticism of the Chechen government. No high-level Russian official has ever condemned the reported detentions and Russian authorities have argued they cannot investigate because the victims are anonymous.
But in late 2017, Maksim Lapunov came forward publicly describing how he was kidnapped off the street in Grozny and tortured. He filed the first and so far only criminal complaint over his torture.
Lapunov’s public allegations, amid intense international pressure, compelled Russia’s Investigative Committee to open a probe into his case. But after less than a year, a court in Lapunov’s hometown of Stavropol ordered it closed, citing lack of evidence. Lapunov, receiving death threats, fled for his life, and now lives in Europe where he has asylum.
The Russian investigation, as Lapunov’s lawyer and rights groups pointed out, ignored key information. In particular, Lapunov has said he had his phone on him, allowing him to prove that during his disappearance he had been in a building in the heart of Chechnya’s security district.
Chechen officials, like Aluadinnov, though have seized on the investigation to assert Lapunov’s accusations are baseless. And despite the growing body of evidence.
Still insecure here. Since the first “purge,” some Chechens have fled the region, helped most often by LGBT organizations.
The Russian LGBT Network, a St. Petersburg-based nongovernmental organization that provides safe houses in Russian cities, said it has helped over 150 people leave since 2017.
But fleeing Chechnya does not mean an automatic end to hardship. LGBT Network cannot provide people with shelter indefinitely and some who fear being kidnapped have said they have been unable to receive asylum.
Some who had left told ABC News they felt they face a grim Catch-22 — they need asylum to avoid torture, but cannot prove it until they already have been.
Rights groups say there are mechanisms in place to prevent this situation for asylum seekers. But some men ABC News has met with have found themselves semi-homeless after fleeing to Moscow.
In Europe, the situation is also often not easy. In asylum centers, many of the residents are from conservative countries who are also intolerant of homosexuality.
Most frightening for some is the large Chechen diaspora in Europe. Chechen refugees have described receiving threatening messages on the chat service Whatsapp from a group of men saying they have taken it on themselves to police behavior among Chechens abroad, including threats against asylum seekers for dressing inappropriately. Police also warn the Chechen authorities can use the diaspora to strike at those speaking against it.