The Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya has suggested that a Chechen singer believed to have been swept up in a purge targeting gay men in the southern Russian region was killed by family members over his sexual orientation.
Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov's remarks, carried by regional state television on January 17, were his first public comments on the August disappearance of singer Zelimkhan Bakayev in the mainly Muslim region.
They diverge from previous accounts of Bakayev's possible fate voiced by senior Chechen officials, who have said he likely fled to Europe or was in hiding after falling into debt.
Kadyrov's suggestion that Bakayev, 25, was killed by family members due to his sexual orientation was the first time a senior official in Chechnya has publicly conceded the singer may no longer be alive.
The Chechen leader, whom rights groups have accused of widespread human rights abuses, also rejected accusations that the singer may have been killed by regional authorities.
"His relatives, who didn't keep an eye on him and were ashamed that he was one of them, now say that Kadyrov took him," he told an audience of uniformed security forces, adding that there was no "evidence" of state involvement.
"His family couldn't stop him, and then called him back home, and his brothers, it seems, accused him of being one of those," Kadyrov continued, clearly alluding to homosexuality. "Isn't there anyone in the village, any man in the family, who can admit: 'We did this'? They know full well who their relative was."
Bakayev's family says he was last seen on August 8 in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, and the mystery over his fate deepened after two bizarre YouTube videos appeared the following month purporting to show him in Germany.
In the videos, which regional state television in Chechnya portrayed as proof that Bakayev was alive and well, a man resembling the singer claims that he is in Germany and arrived in the country in mid-August. But he is shown speaking in a room with the curtains drawn, and there is nothing indicating his actual location.
The videos feature clues that they may have been shot in Russia, including furniture reportedly manufactured in Russia and a can of the energy drink Drive Me, which is sold in Russia -- but not in Germany -- by global beverage giant PepsiCo.
Rights activists feared the videos were staged and that Bakayev may have already been dead by the time they were posted on YouTube.
After months of speculation, a prominent LGBT rights watchdog said in October that Bakayev had been detained by security services in Chechnya as part of an alleged campaign of torture and other abuses targeting gay men in the region.
"At the end of August, we received confirmation of our earlier presumption that Bakayev was detained by Chechen authorities due to suspicion of homosexuality," Igor Kochetkov, founder the Russian LGBT Network, told a news conference in Moscow.
Western Governments Alarmed
Reports of the roundups, first published by the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta in April, have alarmed Western governments. Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin last year.
The U.S. State Department said in September that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had sent a letter to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov conveying "concerns about the credible reports of widespread detentions, torture, and other abuses against gay men in Chechnya," the Washington Blade reported.
Kadyrov, who was hit with U.S. sanctions last month over accusations of torture and "extrajudicial killings," has called reports of the violent crackdown on gay men "lies."
Bakayev's father, Khussein Bakayev, told RFE/RL's Russian Service in an interview following Kadyrov's comments about the singer this week that his family had nothing to do with his son's disappearance.
"None of his relatives laid a finger on him, and there was no reason to lay a finger on him," the father said.
Friends of the singer also said that they do not believe he was killed by relatives.
Kochetkov of the Russian LGBT Network said he believes Kadyrov's remarks were a direct response to a petition launched by the rights group last week urging Russian authorities to investigate Bakayev's disappearance.
"Kadyrov has essentially admitted that Bakayev was killed," the activist told RFE/RL's Russian Service on January 18. "What's more, he is justifying and encouraging these actions."
Kadyrov was previously photographed together with Bakayev, who performed pop concerts in the North Caucasus region and in Moscow in the years prior to his disappearance.
Rights activists accuse Kadyrov, who was appointed by Putin in 2007 to head the region in the North Caucasus, of ruling through repression and allowing his security forces to operate with impunity.
'Sufficient Grounds' For Investigation
In October, an Omsk native became the first alleged victim of a campaign against gay men in Chechnya to publicly deliver his account in Russia.
Maksim Lapunov told a news conference in Moscow that he was detained on the street in Grozny at the end of March by men dressed in civilian clothes and held by Chechen security forces for nearly two weeks. He says that while he was being held, he was beaten and threatened with death because he is gay.
Kremlin human rights ombudswoman Tatyana Moskalkova said last month that she had urged Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of Russia's powerful federal Investigative Committee, to open a criminal case in connection with Lapunov's allegations.
Moskalkova said that she met with Lapunov in person for two hours, and that the account he provided "contains sufficient grounds" for such an investigation, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported. Authorities, however, have yet to launch a formal investigation.
Rights groups accuse the Kremlin of turning a blind eye to abuses by Kadyrov's security forces in the region, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency that spread to Russia's other Muslim-majority regions in the North Caucasus.
Kadyrov in November claimed in an interview with Russian state television that rights activists in Chechnya "dreamt up" the allegations of a violent campaign against gay men in the region "in order to make money."
Following the original Novaya Gazeta report in April, gay men from Chechnya have given accounts to RFE/RL and other media of their escape from the abuse they faced in the region.