BAKU -- Niko, a 27-year-old gay epileptic from Baku, recalls being beaten, tortured with electric shocks, and raped by four police officers who detained him during a crackdown on homosexuals in Azerbaijan.
“They raped me anally and orally,” says Niko, who asks that his real name not be used because he fears for his life. “The police forced me to swallow their sperm.”
Then, he says, he was raped with a police truncheon.
“They rammed the truncheon in my anus and I had an epileptic seizure,” Niko says. “I don’t remember what happened after that. When I woke up, I wasn’t even able to walk.”
For the next 10 days, Niko remained in custody, where he says the torture continued.
After his release in late September, he spent nearly two months trying to stay out of the sight of police who knew about his sexual orientation.
But by mid-November, Niko says, he had been victimized four more times by police officers extorting bribes from him or forcing him to perform oral sex in order to avoid being charged again with "refusing police orders."
Still recovering from shock, he tells RFE/RL about his desperation to leave Azerbaijan and start a new life elsewhere.
International human rights groups say Azerbaijan’s crackdown echoes similar roundups during 2017 in Russia’s North Caucasus region of Chechnya.
In both places, suspected homosexuals were detained, brutally abused, and forced to name other gays who, in many cases, received similar treatment as the crackdowns widened.
Amnesty International says it thinks about 100 homosexuals were rounded up in Azerbaijan’s operation during the last half of September, which the government said was necessary to contain sexually transmitted diseases and improve “morality.”
In Chechnya, the rights group says, well over 100 people were detained and tortured, and at least three were killed. Chechnya’s government denies the roundups ever happened there.
But Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) say evidence of the Chechnya operations is undeniable -- with reports of the violence shocking the world.
Niko tells RFE/RL he was “really shaken” last spring when he first heard about Chechnya’s crackdown.
"I felt really terrible,” he says. “There was a sudden fear in my heart. But I didn’t think it would happen in Azerbaijan to the same extent. I never imagined the recent crackdown here could be that brutal."
Growing Repression, Violence
Rights groups say the increased repression and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in former Soviet republics has been encouraged by Russia’s 2013 law criminalizing the distribution to minors of “distorted ideas about the equal social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relationships.”
In October, in the Samara region on Russia's Volga River, 27-year-old LGBT rights activist Yevdokia Romanova was convicted and fined under what critics have dubbed the "gay propaganda” law -- despite a June ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that the legislation violates the European Convention on Human Rights.
Romanova had posted links on social media to the website of a LGBT rights youth coalition and Western reports on the LGBT movement -- including a BuzzFeed article about an LGBT-rights protest in St. Petersburg.
Denis Krivosheyev, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, describes Romanova’s case as “a sad illustration of the desperate circumstances currently faced” by LGBT activists in Russia.
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“Even the simple freedom to share an online story with friends is now limited by legislation that is blatantly discriminatory and homophobic,” Krivosheyev says.
Krivosheyev tells RFE/RL that the 2013 law initially encouraged a wave of homophobic attacks across Russia that, by 2017, had spread to other former Soviet republics in the form of official crackdowns, discrimination, and mob violence.
In Uzbekistan, where homosexuality is a crime, self-declared “vigilantes” have posed on social media to win the trust of gay men and lure them to meeting places.
Erbulat, a gay friend of the victim of one attack that was recorded and posted online by a homophobic gang, tells RFE/RL there have been many similar attacks recently against homosexuals in Uzbekistan but victims are scared to call police.
"I also was attacked, threatened, and humiliated in such a video," Erbulat says. "I barely escaped them alive. But if I had reported that to the police, they would have laughed at me. They're homophobes, too."
Although Tajikistan rescinded its Soviet-era law against homosexuality in 1998, its government continues to subject gay men to discrimination and rights abuses. It also has forced groups that defend gay rights to stop operating.
In October, the Tajik Prosecutor-General’s Office announced it had compiled a list of what it said were 367 gay men and women in the country “in order to protect their safety and to prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.”
But Firuz, a 30-year-old gay man from Dushanbe, tells RFE/RL the LGBT community fears Tajikistan’s “gay registry” will be used for future crackdowns like those in Chechnya and Azerbaijan.
“The government’s mind-set is above the law in this situation. They answer only to themselves,” says Firuz, who was added to the registry and underwent forced medical examinations after he was detained during a police raid on a Dushanbe nightclub.
Amnesty International also says groups that defend LGBT rights are facing a rise in hostility in parts of the former Soviet Union, fueled by discrimination, homophobia, and what it describes as Russia’s crusade against “nontraditional sexual relationships.”
In a December 22 report, the global human rights watchdog said LGBT rights groups in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan were facing an “increasingly discriminatory environment” due to “the extent of Russian influence and the reach of its media.”
Nightmare In Baku
In Baku, Niko’s nightmare began when he was walking home from his job as a sales consultant for a private supermarket shortly before midnight on September 14.
Meeting a gay friend on the street by chance, a transvestite sex worker he had not seen for months, Niko says he stopped to chat just as an unmarked police car arrived.
“Police knew my friend because he has worked in the streets," Niko says. “Later on, we learned they were looking for us because another gay friend of ours gave them our names.”
Niko says uniformed police threw his friend in the back of their squad car.
"I didn't understand what was going on and continued walking," Niko says. "A few minutes later, I felt a truncheon strike the back of my head."
Niko says he and his friend were taken to Police Unit 19 in Baku’s Yasamal District, where they were beaten and tortured until 4 a.m.
“They started with batons, kicks, and fists,” Niko says, struggling to speak. “Then four of them who were going off shift took me to the deputy police chief’s room."
He says it's there that repeated rapes and other abuses took place and continued until he passed out.
Later that morning, Niko and his friend appeared in a Baku court where the judge sentenced them to 10 days of “administrative detention” on charges of “resisting police orders” -- the same charge that Azerbaijan’s Interior Ministry says was brought against 56 people who were sentenced to up to 30 days of “administrative detention” during the September crackdown.
Krivosheyev and other rights activists say the charge is commonly used by authorities in Azerbaijan for arbitrary arrests.
“We were sent to the Binagady Detention Center,” Niko says. “But after two days there, we were taken to the Organized Crime Department” -- a branch of the Interior Ministry tasked with combating terrorism, human trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and other organized crimes.
He says “employees of the police unit” beat and humiliated both of them and “tortured us with electric shocks for two more days.”
“I witnessed several other gay people being tortured,” Niko says. “I don’t know the exact number of detainees and tortured people.”
After he was forced to name other gay and transgender people, Niko says, he was returned to the administrative detention center, where his head was shaved.
He was released on September 25 after serving his 10-day sentence.
Homosexuality is not a crime in Azerbaijan but is deeply frowned upon by many in the conservative, Muslim-majority country.
Azerbaijani Interior Ministry Ramil Usubov justified the crackdown in an official letter to Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights.
Usubov said in his October 13 letter that “appropriate measures” were taken by Baku police against “violations of public order and security” in an operation that lasted from September 15-30.
Usubov confirmed that 83 people were detained in various parts of Baku for “violation of public order, offenses to public morality, and willful insubordination” of police orders.
He also told the European commissioner there was “no cause” for Brussels to file claims about the “violation of the rights of sexual minority representatives” because the rights of all groups in Azerbaijan are “protected without any restriction.”
Usubov said the “situation with sexual minorities in our country is no different from [the] situation in most European states.
Echoes Of Chechnya
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin's government has faced calls from the United Nations and Western leaders to investigate the crackdown in Chechnya. But the Kremlin has supported Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s denial that suspected gay men were being detained, tortured, and killed.
Meanwhile, scores of traumatized Chechen victims have fled to safe houses in other parts of Russia set up by the St. Petersburg-based Russian LGBT Network.
Most said they feared being detained and tortured again if they stayed in Chechnya.
Many said they could be targeted in so-called honor killings because authorities outed them to their families and have encouraged relatives to “restore family honor.”
The Russian LGBT Network confirms that the safety of some Chechen homosexuals at their safe houses has been compromised by relatives, Chechen police, or others sent to hunt them down and return them to Chechnya.
Boris Dittrich, the advocacy director for HRW’s LGBT Rights program, says Chechen authorities also raided the Grozny homes of gay men who had fled -- threatening to arrest and torture relatives unless they returned.
“They had fled far from home, but it seemed Chechen authorities knew where to find them,” Dittrich says.
Rainbow Railroad, a Toronto-based charity, began working with the Canadian government and the Russian LGBT Network amid reports of the roundups in 2017 to provide a pathway to safety for persecuted gay Chechens.
In the spring, Rainbow Railroad Executive Director Kimahli Powell traveled to Russia to meet victims hiding at Russian LGBT Network safe houses.
Powell tells RFE/RL that the collaboration brought more than 45 Chechen victims out of Russia by early November -- providing travel funds and legal assistance to obtain asylum in Western countries, mostly in Canada.
Powell also confirms that Rainbow Railroad is investigating whether it can help Azerbaijani victims.
But he says the effort is difficult because the government in Baku has barred organizations like Amnesty International, HRW, and LGBT rights groups from working inside Azerbaijan -- forcing contacts to be made through groups operating outside the country.
Outed And Out
Speaking in mid-November, Niko said his life in Azerbaijan's capital had been destroyed and he desperately wanted to escape but that he knew of no locally based organizations that would help.
In the weeks after his release from detention, he was fired from his job and evicted. His family disapproves of homosexuality and refused to help him, he said.
Sympathizers offered Niko temporary sanctuary in Baku to allow him to recover from his trauma, but he knew their help couldn't last forever.
And the abuse at the hands of police continued when he was recognized on the street by patrol officers.
Niko said he didn’t have the money or documents needed to obtain legal residency in neighboring Russia, where he might get help from the Russian LGBT Network.
He said his only option was to flee to Turkey, where he didn’t need a visa, and seek help from an Istanbul-based network that recently has sprung up to assist victims of Azerbaijan's crackdown.
Since his arrival in Istanbul in late November, Niko has been sheltering at one of the network's safe houses while he tries to figure out how and where he can build a new life.