People who complain about abuse or corruption in Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya tend to do so anonymously. The few who are bold enough to speak out publicly against the government of strongman Ramzan Kadyrov tend to experience difficult-to-explain changes of heart.
In March 2017, Maryat Zanzulayeva was caught on video complaining about arbitrary arrests and police beatings. Two days after her video made the rounds on social media, she was "invited" to a televised meeting with Chechen parliament speaker Magomed Daudov, during which she sheepishly denied all her previous accusations as Daudov grilled her.
"I didn't know I was being filmed," she said. "Everything I said is untrue. I ask for your forgiveness."
In January 2016, local lawmaker Konstantin Senchenko posted on social media that Kadyrov was "a disgrace to Russia."
"You have discredited everything it is possible to discredit," Senchenko wrote.
Later the same day, Chechen TV broadcast audio of Senchenko saying, "I apologize for any incorrect and offensive words." Senchenko told RFE/RL at the time that he made the apology in a conversation with "a respected person" representing the Chechen community.
In October 2015, Chechen social worker Ayshat Inayeva, who had spoken out about corruption, was browbeaten on TV by Kadyrov himself. "How could I say such a thing?" she said during the broadcast. "I don't even know. I am guilty under the gaze of Allah, the people, my husband, and [Kadyrov]."
The latest apparent volte-face comes from Chechen resident Bekkhan Yusupov. On January 29, the Moscow newspaper Novaya gazeta, citing the gay-rights group LBGT-Network, mentioned Yusupov in an article about dozens of suspected gay men being rounded up and held by Chechen security forces.
Although the article said Yusupov was reportedly being held in Grozny "together with other people suspected of being homosexuals," it did not say that Yusupov himself was gay.
"It is possible that he was detained for his property (including the car that he drove from France in)," the article said. "In recent times, Chechen police across the republic have been detaining people in order to extort valuables in exchange for their freedom." Yusupov left Chechnya in 2011 and has been given refugee status in France. In December he returned to Chechnya to visit relatives, and he was expected to return to France before January 11, when he was scheduled to appear at a hearing relating to his citizenship application.
On February 1, however, Yusupov appeared in a short video clip shown on Chechen state TV in which he said he was "shocked" by the Novaya gazeta article and that he would "definitely" sue the newspaper in order to defend his "good name."
He did not explain in the video which part of the Novaya gazeta report he found to constitute "libel." However, the website Checheninfo.com on February 2 published the text of Yusupov's complaint to prosecutors, in which he alleged that the article said, "I was detained by police because of my supposed homosexual orientation."
In the statement, Yusupov acknowledged that he was detained "for several hours" by police for having in his possession "several rusty and spent bullet jackets" out of which he said he planned to make key chains.
"After I made the necessary statements, I was allowed to leave the police station without incident," he wrote.
The independent website Caucasus Knot interviewed several Chechen activists, all of whom requested anonymity, who expressed skepticism about Yusupov's statement. "What is this story about keychains from bullet jackets?" one interviewee said. "The fact that this version came out only several days after the scandal created by the Novaya gazeta article also raises questions."
On January 31, Chechen police briefly detained Aleksandr Karavayev, a Nizhny Novgorod-based lawyer who came to Grozny to represent Yusupov and who was trying to locate him. The same day, pro-Kadyrov activist Kheda Saratova posted a photograph of Yusupov and several of his relatives on her Facebook page, saying that they had come to complain to her about the Novaya gazeta article.
Karavayev met with Yusupov on February 1, although a mysterious woman who identified herself as journalist Yevdokia Moskvina was present the entire time. Karavayev told Novaya gazeta that Yusupov "gave the impression of a person who was lost, ill, and completely unfree in his actions who kept repeating the same thing over and over: 'Who gave them the right to use my personal information? I will sue!'"
The same day that Yusupov's video appeared, Chechen Press Minister Dzhambulat Umarov posted a video on Instagram in which he threateningly strokes a baby duck named "Novaya gazeta" and says he intends to "quietly educate her and turn her into a tame goose."
Novaya gazeta and the LGBT-Network began reporting about the alleged extrajudicial mass detentions of gay men in Chechnya in 2017. They believe that hundreds of men have been detained and many of them have been tortured. Several were reportedly killed.
Chechen officials have denied the allegations. Kadyrov has gone so far as to say there are no homosexuals in Chechnya. "We don't have those kinds of people here," he said in July 2017. "We don't have any gays. If there are any, take them to Canada.... Take them far from us so we don't have them at home. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them."
In December 2018, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe issued a report citing "clear evidence of successive purges" against LGBT people in Chechnya and calling on Moscow "to fully investigate the allegations and to bring to justice the alleged perpetrators."