iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — They call themselves survivors. Two Chechen men who agreed to share their story say they have been forced into hiding and their lives are in danger simply because they are gay.
They say they are so afraid, even with a place in a secret safe house outside of Moscow, that they asked ABC News’ Nightline not to reveal their identities so they can share, without fear of reprisal, the details of their lives in the shadows. All interviews are translated from Russian.
The two men, who we have chosen to call “Danill” and “Dimitry,” spoke with ABC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Terry Moran and said they fled Chechnya because authorities were rounding up and arresting gay people.
“Because the rounding up of homosexuals had begun,” Danill said. “And it was a new level of rounding up.”
Bigotry against LGBT people in Russia has been on the rise in recent years. Human Rights Watch has collected disturbing images of men allegedly being choked, beaten and violated — targeted, they say, because of their sexuality — and repressive government policies have fueled the hatred.
But in Chechnya, a semi-autonomous republic, human rights groups say vigilante hate has evolved into something far worse — a coordinated government campaign to round up and eliminate gay men: a mass persecution.
In April, reports emerged that the Chechen authorities were kidnapping and torturing dozens of gay men, holding them in secret prisons attached to police stations. In accounts, first to the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta and later to foreign media outlets, including ABC News, Chechen men have described how they were detained by security forces and tortured, often through beatings and electric shocks, into confessing their sexuality and into naming others as gay.
According to the accounts from Dmitry and others, police went through men’s phones looking to find others they suspected were gay. Those identified then also faced being detained and tortured.
The campaign is said to have brought a new level of terror, but according to those who have fled and rights groups, it has always been dangerous being gay in Chechnya.
Danill said he is no stranger to discrimination and violence. As a gay man in Chechnya, he said he could take the risk of dating very rarely, and even when there was the glimmer of a possibility of a romantic encounter, building trust with someone took months.
“We meet in public places, in case of danger, we can run away or ask for help,” he said.
Danill lived in Grozny, the capital of the Chechen Republic, and said the threat of being exposed as gay, then blackmailed or beaten, was always present. He said he met a man who he saw three times on clandestine dates, who then, terrifyingly, set him up.
“We met three times before … and a fourth time he has asked me to visit his place,” he said. “He came out to meet me, I gave him my hand to say ‘hi’ and then I saw three men. They were dragging me into the apartment. Someone was holding me, someone was punching me, I started to resist and I ran downstairs.”
For many gay men, Danill said, living in fear, hiding your truth is commonplace in the conservative Islamic culture of Chechnya. LGBT activists say here, Islam takes the harshest view of homosexuality.
Danill said he heard more and more of his acquaintances were disappearing, and he said one disturbing story about a friend allegedly being arrested led him to make a decision to flee.
“He was taken out in handcuffs, forced into a car trunk and taken away,” Danill said. “The same day, I quit work, packed my stuff, everything I could carry and left Grozny.”
Dimitry said what happened to him was far worse. Caught in the organized round-up, he said he was arrested and detained by Chechen security forces, and spent more than a week held in a basement, where he was starved and brutally tortured.
“They split my eye, my lip, broke my ribs, they electrocuted me … they put metal clips on my ears,” Dimitry said. “Electrocution is unbearably painful. It felt much worse than normal voltage. The shock makes you want to jump to the ceiling.”
He said he heard others screaming as they were being tortured, “and confess all sorts of things that weren’t even true, just to make it stop. It’s horrible.”
Both Dmitry and Danill were given refuge in a safe house in Moscow by a rights group, LGBT Network, that since the persecutions began has been working to help gay men get out of Chechnya.
Accounts like these from gay men in Chechnya have only slowly emerged into public view in part because of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, one of the country’s last independent papers. They were the first to break the story back in April.
“The first … men were beaten, they were tortured, they were electrocuted and one of the main questions the police forces asked is, ‘Give us names of another gay man, just names,’” said Irina Gordienko, who covers Chechnya for the paper.
Since then, Gordineko said she believes at least 200 men have been rounded up, held and tortured. She said she knew of three men who had died as a result.
But an accurate accounting is hard to come by in Chechnya, where there is little government accountability, even less free press and a long history of extrajudicial killing.
Gordineko said the Chechen authorities operate with impunity and have also done the same horrific things to other people including Islamic extremists, drug dealers and people who have suspected ties to Syria.
The Chechen Republic is under the rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, a onetime separatist militia leader, who became a Moscow loyalist during the second Chechen war that ended in 2000. Kadyrov has ruled the region with an iron fist for the past decade.
“The Kremlin chose … to put a strongman in charge of it,” said Denis Krivosheev, the deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International. “Now that comes at a price and the price is to overlook virtually anything that he wants to do in that territory.”
Kadyrov is a leader filled with bravado and bluster. He regularly stars in his own online videos that he shares on social media, which serve as glimpses into the personality cult he has built, one based on masculinity, power and devout Muslim observance.
In a recent interview with HBO’s Real Sports, his first interview with Western media in years, which will be airing all month on HBO, Kadyrov flat out denied the very existence of gays in his country or that gays had been subjected to torture in Chechnya.
“We don’t have those kinds of people here,” Kadyrov said. “If there are any, take them to Canada. Praise be to God. Take them far from us so we don’t have them at home. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”
“They are devils,” he continued. “They are for sale. They are not people.”
He even suggested that if Chechen families took matters into their own hands, authorities would look the other way.
“If we have such people here, then I’m telling you officially, their relatives won’t let them be because our faith, our mentality, customs and traditions,” Kadyrov said. “Even if it’s punishable under law, we would still condone it.”
According to Krivosheev, Kadyrov has stoked prejudice in the traditionalist society to enlist people in the persecution.
“Men who are suspected, who have been outed as gay, are at risk of [being killed by] their own families and in fact it seems the authorities who are behind this campaign have staged it in a way that they didn’t have to deal with anyone directly,” he said. “They ultimately return these men to their families and tell them, ‘You know what to do.’ … Essentially families are expected to kill their own relatives if they are have been publicly named gay.”
Since the story of gays being tortured broke, there has been international condemnation. Kadyrov was summoned to Moscow and denied there was any purge during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had ordered an investigation that human rights groups say has since been halted.
Novaya Gazeta reported it was initially heartened by apparent government moves to investigate, particularly the appointment of a veteran investigator known for being effective. But the investigator has since been moved away from the case and the newspaper says it now believes authorities are pushing to have the investigation die off.
At the same time, the rights group, LGBT Network, said it has received new reports that the detentions of gay men have begun again. A spokesperson for the group told ABC News on Tuesday that after weeks where they believed the campaign had halted, in the past month it had suddenly received around 10 new appeals for help and that those making the requests had described new arrests.
Despite all of this, Danill and Dimitry both said they were torn between protecting themselves and leaving their families behind.
Dimitry, who is married and has two children, says he has not even told his wife where he is.
“She thinks that I just left to work, left to Russia, but that I am at work, that I work on a construction site somewhere,” he said. “No one knows where I am.”
Both men are being given refuge by the LGBT Network, a Russian nonprofit organization that has already helped dozens of people.
But even having reached relative safety in Moscow, Danill and Dimitry feel they are still in a kind of purgatory. They have little hope of leaving. There’s a kind of “underground railroad” that’s been set up, but LGBT Network organizers say just 27 of the 120 people who have sought their help have made it out of Russia.
“If I had the means, I would have left,” Dimitry said.
For both men, they say there is no good option. They have already lost their families, their homes and their country.
“I understand that there is no way back for me,” Dimitry said.
Danill said he loves his country, and he just wants a “normal” life where he can live, work and come home without having to be in hiding.
“I understand that there is no way back for me,” Danill added. “As long as I am here, I have no clue what tomorrow brings me.”
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