Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman sought to downplay evidence of a campaign of abuse targeting gay men in Chechnya, saying the Kremlin has "heard no confirmation" of reports that have prompted outrage in the West.
Speaking to journalists on April 20, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin has no reason to doubt regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov's assurances that there is no persecution of gays in Chechnya.
HIs remarks came a day after Kadyrov met with Putin in the Kremlin and dismissed what he called "provocative articles" about gay men being rounded up by the authorities in Chechnya and families who are encouraged to perform honor killings.
Putin made no comment on the issue in the public portion of the meeting, according to a transcript posted on the Kremlin website late on April 19.
An April 1 report in the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta said more than 100 men had been detained in Chechnya recently on the basis of the assumption that they were gay, and that at least three of them were killed.
Gay men from Chechnya have since given personal accounts to RFE/RL and other media of their escape from the abuse they faced in the region in the North Caucasus, which Kadyrov has ruled with an iron hand and strong Kremlin support for a decade.
The news agency AFP reported on April 20 that it had spoken to several men who were in hiding in Moscow after fleeing Chechnya.
The men said they were beaten and detained in unofficial prisons, and had fled the region because they were afraid of both the authorities and their own relatives, AFP reported.
The Russian LGBT Network, an NGO that helps Chechens persecuted for "homosexuality, both real and imagined" to flee the region, said on April 17 that about 60 people had asked to be evacuated in less than three weeks.
"So far we have heard no confirmation to this information," Peskov said of the reports and accounts, which have prompted widespread concern among governments and activists in the West.
When a journalist mentioned media accounts of conversations with victims, Peskov said: "Where are they? There are no people.... Who are these people? Where do they live?"
"These are some phantom complaints, absolutely depersonalized," Peskov said.
Russia's prosecutor-general said on April 17 that it was looking into the claims, which have prompted calls from several countries, as well as the United Nations and the European Union, for thorough investigations.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said on April 17 that the United states is "disturbed by reports of kidnapping, torture, and murder of people in Chechnya based on their sexual orientation."
But activists fear that remarks from Russian officials denying or downplaying the reports mean there is little chance justice will be done.
Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia's human rights commissioner, also said on April 20 that she suspects the reports are a "provocation."
"Have people really suffered, or does somebody want to get something out of this?" the Interfax news agency quoted her as saying.
Putin has made no public comment on the issue.
In the public portion of his meeting with Kadyrov, he said only one word about it, asking what the Chechen leader was referring to when he brought up the matter.
Kadyrov criticized the reports, which he said were "unsubstantiated," and the two then went on to discuss other things.
In denying the Novaya Gazeta report on April 1, Kadyrov's spokesman asserted that it could not be true because gay men "simply don't exist" in Chechnya. He also implied that if there were any, their relatives would kill them.
Rights activists say Kadyrov rules through repressive measures and has created a climate of impunity for security forces in Chechnya.
Government critics say the Kremlin has given him free rein because it relies on him to keep a lid on separatism and insurgent violence after two devastating post-Soviet wars in the region.
Putin has also come under criticism in the West for signing a law on gay “propaganda” that gay rights activists say encourages discrimination against and abuse of homosexuals.
With reporting by AFP and AP