Several men have come forward to offer firsthand accounts of the abuse they suffered in Chechnya, where gay men have reportedly been abducted, detained, tortured, and even killed.
The Guardian spoke with two men who corroborated a news story, first reported by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, of an anti-gay purging campaign in the Russian republic of Chechnya.
A man, referred to only as Adam, recounts having metal clamps applied to his fingers and toes and being electrocuted, then, if he managed not to scream, he was beaten with wooden sticks and metal rods.
"Sometimes they were trying to get information from me; other times they were just amusing themselves," he said, describing how his attackers would verbally abuse him and ask for the names of other gay men he knew.
Adam was one of over a dozen men held at an informal detention center where they were subjected to daily torture:
"They woke us up at 5am and let us sleep at 1am. Different people would come in and take turns to beat us. Sometimes they brought in other prisoners, who were told we were gay and were also ordered to beat us."
So far, more than 100 gay men have been detained and at least three killed--something Alvi Karimov, a spokesman for Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, callously denied.
"You cannot arrest or repress people who just don't exist in the republic," Karimov told the Interfax news agency. "If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return."
Adam says that after about 10 days, some of the men were returned to their families, with this ominous warning: "They said: 'Your son is a faggot. Do what you need to with him.'"
The purge is apparently a response to a permit application from a Moscow-based LGBTQ rights group to hold pride parades in four cities in the predominantly Muslim North Caucus region of Russia, which includes Chechnya. Though the group didn't apply for a permit in Chechyna, the application itself prompted the anti-gay campaign.
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Russian president Vladimir Putin has empowered local leaders, like Kadyrov, to, according to The New York Times, "press agendas of traditional Muslim values, to co-opt an Islamist underground." This comes after Russia enacted a controversial ban on so-called gay propaganda, making its stance on homosexuality very clear. The pride parade applications were simply an impetus for the crackdowns, which included authorities posing as gay men to entrap actual, closeted gay men.
Adam, like Ahkmed--another Chechen man who spoke with The Guardian under condition of anonymity--fell victim to one of these traps. After Ahkmed's fortuitous date with a man who, like him, had been outed as gay, he was blackmailed by the police. Family members called him when he was outside of Chechnya and handed the phone over to the police. They threatened to hold one of his family members hostage until he returned. Another relative spoke with him on the phone--the police had told Ahkmed's family he was gay and the relative demanded he return home.
"I have not the slightest doubt that my own relatives planned to kill me," Ahkmed said. "It was an invitation to an execution."
Ahkmed never returned home, hasn't spoken to his family since, and doesn't expect he will ever go back to Chechnya:
"Imagine knowing that you've ruined not only your own life but the life of your entire family," said Akhmed. "I've always just wanted to make my mother happy and proud. I was ready to marry. I would have taken all these problems with me to the grave. I could never have imagined in my worst nightmares that I would be sitting here in front of a journalist and saying: 'I'm a Chechen and I'm gay.'"
The horrifying news coming out of Chechnya has sparked an international outcry, with 50 members of Congress signing a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to pressure the Russian government to investigate and stop the violence; a panel of United Nations experts condemning the abduction, detention, and torture of gay and bi men; calls for action from celebs like Ellen DeGeneres and Troye Sivan; and a mass protest outside the Russian Embassy in London that drew a crowd of hundreds.
"We are talking about the mass persecution of gay people, with hundreds of people kidnapped by authorities," Igor Kochetkov, a gay rights activist from St. Petersburg, told The Guardian. "This is unprecedented not only in Russia but in recent world history. There is little doubt that we are dealing with crimes against humanity."