‘We can find you anywhere’: the Chechen death squads stalking Europe.

Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Photograph: Musa Sadulayev/AP

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.

Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a former Chechen separatist commander, shot dead in Berlin in August.

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.

Tumso Abdurakhmanov, a critic of the Chechen ruler, in hiding in Poland. Photograph: Francesca Ebel/AP

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.

Protesters hold portraits of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in front of the German embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, after his death last month. Photograph: Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA

“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.

Amina Okuyeva, who was killed in an ambush in Kyiv, Ukraine in 2017 with her husband Adam Osmayev, the battalion’s commander, who was wounded.

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.

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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.

We’re inviting you to make a difference today by donating to the Chechyna Appeal.

Every dollar, euro and pound you give will help evacuate LGBTI people in the most danger. And to pressure the Chechen authorities to stop this persecution.

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Coming out to head of Chechen police, a force accused of brutal ‘gay purge’. (Part 2)

“Nightline” gained rare access to a Chechen prison with the republic’s head of police, General Apti Alaudinov. ABC News’ James Longman revealed to Alaudinov that he is gay while at the prison.

We’re inviting you to make a difference today by donating to the Chechyna Appeal.

Every dollar, euro and pound you give will help evacuate LGBTI people in the most danger. And to pressure the Chechen authorities to stop this persecution.

Copyright www.abcnews.go.com

‘Any day you can be taken’: Inside what it’s like to be gay in Chechnya. (Part 1)

LGBT people in Chechnya fear brutal persecution at the hands of government: Part 1.

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.

ABC News’ James Longman toured a prison with Apti Alaudinov, the head of police in Chechnya, a Russian republic that has allegedly purged LGBTQ people over the last two years.

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.

Amin Dzhabrailov tells ABC News” James Longman the torture and interrogation he says he endured at the hands of Chechen police.

“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.

ABC News’ James Longman spoke with Apti Alaudinov, the head of police in Chechnya, a Russian republic that has allegedly purged LGBTQ people over the last two years.

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.

“We still feel insecure even here,” said Harlem.

We’re inviting you to make a difference today by donating to the Chechyna Appeal.

Every dollar, euro and pound you give will help evacuate LGBTI people in the most danger. And to pressure the Chechen authorities to stop this persecution.

Copyright www.abcnews.go.com

St. Petersburg murder victim was ‘well-known LGBT rights activist’.

Yelena Grigoryeva protesting over LGBT rights. Photograph: Dinar Idrisov/Facebook

Yelena Grigoryeva received threats before she was stabbed to death, say campaigners.

Russian campaigners have said that a woman found murdered with multiple stab wounds in the city of Saint Petersburg was a well-known activist who had received threats over her protests for LGBT rights and opposition causes.

Authorities said they had found the body of a 41-year-old woman with multiple knife wounds in St Petersburg on Sunday, but did not identify her.

Activists and media reports in the city named the victim as local campaigner Yelena Grigoryeva, who was a regular participant in rallies supporting a range of unpopular causes in modern Russia, including LGBT rights and freedom for Ukrainian political prisoners.

“An activist of democratic, anti-war and LGBT movements Yelena Grigoryeva was brutally murdered near her house” on Friday night, opposition campaigner Dinar Idrisov wrote on Facebook. He said she had recently reported threats of violence to the police, but they took no action.

Acquaintances said Grigoryeva’s name was on a list of LGBT activists published by a recently blocked Russian website that called on people to take vigilante action against them. Russia’s internet watchdog banned the website last week.

In recent days, activists at an LGBT resource centre in the city of Ekaterinburg said they had received a threatening letter, signed by “a liquidator of gays”, warning that if they did not close down the centre “something very bad and very sad” could happen.

Photographs posted to Grigoryeva’s Facebook page in recent months showed her holding placards at various rallies and protests. One called for “A Russia which people will not be scared of, but be inspired by”. Another read: “In Russia there are more than 5 million gay people. Because of backwardness and hatred, they have to live secretly.”

Idrisov wrote that her views had changed over time, from nationalist to liberal, and said he did not know if the attack was related to her work. He said, however, that she had recently received threats and had even asked a friend to look after her cat in the event that anything happened to her.

The Saint Petersburg online newspaper Fontanka said Grigoryeva was found with knife injuries to her back and face and had apparently been strangled. A suspect had been arrested, it reported.

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Tortured in Chechnya for being gay, this man found refuge and safety in Canada.

Amin Dzhabrailov was arrested, beaten, and tortured before the Rainbow Railroad helped him come to Canada.

Amin Dzhabrailov says his torturers beat him with pipes or their feet and gave him electric shocks. ‘No one wanted to touch you with the hands just because you’re gay,’ he says. (Austin Grabish/CBC).

While being beaten and tortured with electric shocks, Amin Dzhabrailov tried to think about how he would run away.

The 27-year-old is from Chechnya and survived an anti-gay purge that saw men detained and tortured in the Russian republic in 2017.

“They were using [their] feet, plastic pipes, long pipes,” to beat prisoners, Dzhabrailov said during an interview in Winnipeg.

“And after they started using electric shock,” he said.

“No one wanted to touch you with the hands just because you’re gay, and it’s disgusting.”

He was in Winnipeg last Thursday night to speak at a fundraiser that brought in $137,000 for Rainbow Railroad, a non-profit that helps LGBT people escape from countries where their lives are in danger because of who they are.

Rainbow Railroad executive director Kimahli Powell said Winnipeg has been a special part of the non-profit’s history. When the annual fundraising event was started in 2014 in the city, the organization had just made the transition from a small collective to a charity.

“This fundraiser was the big boost that really started the organization,” he said. “We would not be where we are today without the community in Winnipeg and their generosity.”

Dzhabrailov, who once only would speak to journalists if his face was concealed, is sharing his story to drum up support for Rainbow Railroad, as it continues its work to save LGBT people from persecution in countries around the world.

He also wants to inspire others from his community who are still in Chechnya, where human rights watchdogs say anti-gay purges have continued.

Dzhabrailov and his partner, Viskhan Arsanov, shared their stories at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, where the Rainbow Railroad held a fundraiser on Sept. 12. (Austin Grabish/CBC).

He says he was kidnapped by Russian soldiers from a hair salon where he was working in March 2017.

“It was awful,” he recalls. “I was colouring hair and it was my usual day. I had lunch and they just came — some guys with guns.”

The men handcuffed Dzhabrailov and drove him to a building that became a torture facility where he would spend the next two weeks.

‘The edge of dying’
“I was tortured almost each day and night,” he said.

There was mental abuse, in addition to the beatings and continued electrical shocks used on him and the roughly 17 other gay men there. Soldiers pressed the men for names of other gay people.

“It’s like [being] on the edge of dying, especially when they’re using that machine which is making electricity,” which would be fixed to his ears, fingers or toes, he said.

“I was screaming to stop this.”

In this 2017 file photo, a gay rights activist holding a rainbow umbrella is detained by police during a rally marking May Day in downtown St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press).

Every day, as soldiers beat Dzhabrailov and made him work cleaning floors and washing their cars, he thought about suicide, but there was no chance to escape.

He remembers the taunts and laughs from soldiers, and one instance where a soldier shoved his gun into Dzhabrailov’s mouth.

The nightmare ended when his captors brought him and others to another location, where his family was waiting.

There, he says, soldiers shamed him for being gay and asked family members why they didn’t take care of their relatives. They talked about killing the men, while their parents kept their eyes down, afraid to speak.

Dzhabrailov’s brothers took him home but he knew he couldn’t stay in Chechnya for long. He asked Viskhan Arsanov, a long-time friend and now his partner, for help.

Dzhabrailov, right, and his boyfriend, Viskhan Arsanov, left, were in Winnipeg for a Rainbow Railroad fundraiser on Thursday. The non-profit helped the two men find refuge in Canada. (Austin Grabish/CBC).

The 28-year-old was living in Moscow at the time. While he wasn’t tortured, he was threatened for being gay by a man he believes may have been a police officer or government solider.

Arsanov got Dzhabrailov, who had no money, to St. Petersburg.

Dzhabrailov then got in touch with an LGBT network that connected him with Rainbow Railroad, which got both men out of the country safely.

“I remember when he’s leaving [for] Canada and he has tickets, everything … I say, ‘Jesus, I can’t believe it. It’s real. Everything is real,'” Arsanov recalls.

The men, who now call Toronto home, are grateful for Rainbow Railroad and are enjoying every moment of freedom in Canada.

“We’re just two young men who are living our best lives,” Dzhabrailov said.

“I don’t get tired telling this, and I won’t, ’cause I’m really living this.”

A man who was tortured for being gay in Chechnya is opening up to share his story of survival. 2:25.

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