Dimitri knew what was happening as soon as he received a call from police, ordering him to “come outside now”. He had been dreading this moment. But in Chechnya, if you’re homosexual, the threat of violence or worse is always close. They were already waiting at his front door. The police made him keep his head down in the back of the car so he couldn’t see where they were going. He was taken to a damp basement of many rooms with thick doors and walls. There was another young athletic man already in detention there. Dimitri quickly realised this was the place where homosexuals are taken.
The authorities wanted Dimitri to provide the phone number of another man who was his friend and suspected lover. He refused, saying, “Everyone is my friend”, but denied he was gay and didn’t give the number. Then came the beatings. They were long and brutal, and left his body bruised and his ribs broken. He suffered a severe haematoma from blood clots sustained during the beatings. Next, wires were attached to his ears and hands and he felt the agony of electrical currents surging through his system. Dimitri was kept in this basement for a week without food. He was encouraged to pray. The toilet became the only place from which to wash and drink water to stave off the hunger and thirst.
In an interview conducted by independent Russian journalist Elena Kostyuchenko for online news site Meduza, and provided to The Saturday Paper on condition of anonymity, Dimitri says that even before his ordeal he had to keep his homosexuality secret as it is the only way to survive in Chechnya. “I have many relatives – and no one knows that I’m gay. Even my wife does not know. I have a fourth child on the way. But if I have the opportunity to meet someone, I will not, of course, refuse. I need it. I do not think it’s my fault. Maybe nature, maybe disease.”
After being released following a week in detention, in which he repeatedly denied to Chechen authorities he was homosexual and endured beatings, electric shocks and interrogation, Dimitri returned home to his wife and children and attempted to get on with his life. His family knew he had been detained but not the reason why. “I was frightened,” Dimitri says. “My psyche was destroyed. I turned grey. Even people I knew didn’t recognise me on the street.” Dimitri heard from a friend about a special hotline that had been set up by the Russian LGBT Network to help victims of violence in Chechnya escape. Fearing for his safety amid an increasingly violent crackdown, he took the opportunity to flee while he could.
“Not for myself but for my family I have to live,” he said. “So here I am. I did not even tell my wife. I lied to her that a friend offered me a job. She told me – if it’s so good there then go. My daughter does not go to bed when I’m not around. She’s crying, you know? And I cannot go home now. If it was not a sin to hang myself, I’d already be hanged. I sleep and jump from fear. I go out into the street – it always seems to me that they are following me. I’m afraid of the phone. They are everywhere.”
In Chechnya, gay men are now in grave danger. The semi-autonomous Muslim Caucasian region of southern Russia has a history of hyper-masculine culture and homophobia, but the current pogrom implemented under its pro-Kremlin leader Ramzan A. Kadyrov marks a dark new chapter in the history of the country’s human rights abuses. The persecution of gay men was first reported by the Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta in March this year, when they found that more than 100 men had been rounded up and at least three killed due to their “unconventional sexual orientation”.
According to the report by journalist Elena Milashina – who has since fled Russia following numerous death threats – the men range in age from 16 to 50. The newspaper has since reported there are at least six such prisons operating in Chechnya – both in Grozny and more remote areas, including Argun and Zozin-Jurt.
Svetlana Zakharova, communications manager for the Russian LGBT Network, told The Saturday Paper that her organisation first became aware of these incidents in March when they were contacted via social media by men in Chechnya – but they now know the incidents started as early as February.
“Then we checked the information with our partners who work in the region and were able to confirm the information with trusted sources,” Zakharova said. “Their stories are very similar – that they were detained and put in these prisons together. Many were tortured with electrical currents. Some people were brutally beaten and others told of witnessing men being beaten to death.”
Zakharova says that since the hotline has been established they have been contacted by about 80 men in need of protection and have evacuated more than 30 men from Russia. “We quickly realised that the only option for these people is to be evacuated from Russia completely,” she says. “We don’t talk about destinations for security reasons, because people are hunted and have very good reason to be afraid for their lives.”
In Chechnya, an ancient tradition of honour killing means that even if the suspects are released, they face the prospect of being killed by relatives. Following international condemnation, a spokesman for the Chechen government, Alvi Karimov, said: “You can’t detain and harass someone who doesn’t exist in the republic. If there were such people in the Chechen republic, law enforcement wouldn’t have a problem with them because their relatives would send them to a place of no return.”
The reports of detention and torture have been corroborated by Human Rights Watch, which has received many confirmations from trusted sources on the ground in Chechnya. “The number of sources and the consistency of the stories leaves us with no doubt that these devastating developments have indeed occurred,” said Russia program director Tanya Lokshina. “It is difficult to overstate just how vulnerable LGBT people are in Chechnya, where homophobia is intense and rampant. LGBT people are in danger not only of persecution by the authorities but also of falling victim to ‘honour killings’ by their own relatives for tarnishing family honour.”
Russia has thus far remained muted in its response, citing a lack of evidence and described the news as a “false denunciation” and a “provocation”. In a press conference last week with Vladimir Putin and Kadyrov, the Russian leader appeared unfazed by the reports. In Russia, gays are not protected by anti-discrimination laws or legal relationship recognition and are subjected to a raft of discriminatory laws, including its “propaganda bans” passed in 2013 banning the distribution to minors of “propaganda” that promotes “non-traditional sexual relationships”.
During a May Day demonstration in St Petersburg this week, gay rights activists were detained by police after they covered themselves in fake blood and lay on a street chanting “Kadyrov to The Hague”, demanding the Chechen leader be brought to trial in the International Criminal Court. Among those detained was Igor Kochetkov, director of the Russian LGBT Network, the group that has organised the hotline and safe houses to help gay men escape Chechnya. The detainees were released on Tuesday.
In a midweek meeting in Sochi on the Black Sea coast with President Putin, German chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her concern about “negative reports on the way that homosexuals are dealt with, particularly in Chechnya”.
Chechen leader Kadyrov has a reputation as a violent, provincial ruler who regularly posts images of himself in poses of heroism and valour to his 2.7 million Instagram followers. He favours an extreme brand of fundamentalist Islam, which supports honour killings. He has denounced slain female activists as people of “loose morals” and has reportedly boasted of plans to eliminate the entire gay population of Chechnya before Ramadan, which begins at the end of this month. Kadyrov rules Chechnya by brute force and with Kremlin backing.
The Russian LGBT Network is calling for a proper government investigation into the horrific reports.
“It is the responsibility of Russian authorities to go there, check those prisons, and directly find out what is happening to these people,” Svetlana Zakharova says. “As a small NGO we don’t have resources to go there ourselves – this is the responsibility of the state. We can help these people but we can’t solve the problem ourselves. It needs to be an international priority that this situation is properly investigated. We just want to stop the killings.”
Tanya Lokshina says Human Rights Watch has also reached out to the Australian government to provide refuge for Chechen victims. “We have been talking to various governments, including the Australian government, about providing safe haven,” she says. “It’s very important that countries like Australia – not having a Chechen diaspora and being very far removed – step up. We do genuinely hope that the Australian government takes at least some of the victims of these horrendous crimes.”
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says Australia has sought assurances from Moscow that no Australians are involved. “The Australian government is concerned at reports of mass arrests of individuals in the Republic of Chechnya in the Russian Federation due to their perceived or actual sexual orientation,” she said. “We have raised our concerns directly with the Russian government.”
For Dimitri, one thing is clear – he never wants to go back to Chechnya. “One person I knew … he was released home. He died at home on the second day. I know the names of those who were murdered by relatives. Another guy, a positive dude, he was either from Poland or Germany. He came to the republic – and he, too, was caught. He was held for 40 days. When he came out his legs were black.”
Dimitri has since spoken to his previous neighbour in Chechnya, who told him the police had come pounding on his door searching for him. When
they questioned the neighbour she had lied and said she didn’t know where he had gone.
“I have nowhere to go,” Dimitri said. “I do not know what will happen to me. But I know one thing – if I move I will arrange to take my family. While I’m alive, I will not let them go. I’m afraid for them.”