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Russian Activists Link Chechen Singer's Disappearance To Alleged Antigay Campaign

'I Could Barely Crawl': Gay Russian Alleges Torture In Chechnya
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WATCH: At a press conference on October 16 in Moscow, Maksim Lapunov became the first person to go public with allegations of abuse in Chechnya's reported crackdown on gays and lesbians.

A prominent gay-rights watchdog has alleged that a singer from Chechnya who disappeared in August was detained by the authorities in connection with a campaign targeting gay men in the southern Russian region.

The assertion by Igor Kochetkov, founder the Russian LGBT Network, at an October 16 news conference in Moscow was the first time that activists have publicly linked singer Zelimkhan Bakayev's disappearance to the alleged campaign of detentions and torture of dozens of men in Chechnya this year.

Bakayev, whose family says he was last seen on August 8 in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, appears to have been swept up in a fresh wave of a crackdown in the region on gay men and those suspected of being gay, Kochetkov said.

Reports of the roundups have alarmed Western officials, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year. Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has called the reports "lies."

"At the end of August, we received confirmation of our earlier presumption that Bakayev was detained by Chechen authorities due to suspicion of homosexuality," Kochetkov told the news conference.

The announcement to journalists was timed to coincide with the release of a new report by the respected independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta on alleged abuses against gay men by Chechen authorities.

In April, Novaya Gazeta became the first media outlet to publish reports of an antigay campaign in Chechnya. Gay men from the region have since given accounts to RFE/RL and other media of their escape from the abuse they faced in the region in the North Caucasus.

'I Could Barely Crawl'

Also appearing at the October 16 news conference was the first alleged victim of the crackdown to deliver his account of his ordeal publicly on the record and known to have filed a criminal complaint in the matter.

Maksim Lapunov, whose account was detailed in the Novaya Gazeta report released in conjunction with the news conference, told reporters that he was detained on the street in Grozny at the end of March by men dressed in civilian clothes.

Lapunov, who said he had arrived in Grozny in 2015, became visibly emotional as he recalled details from what he said was his nearly two-week detention. He said he spent most of his time locked up in a cellar, where he saw fresh blood stains on the floor and was subjected to repeated beatings.

He said the officials he spoke with made it clear he was being held because he is gay, and that interrogators tried to force him to reveal the names of others connected to homosexuality, specifically in Grozny."

In addition to the beatings, he was repeatedly threatened with death and other kinds of torture, Lapunov alleged.

He told Novaya Gazeta that he believes he was released only because there were numerous witnesses of his detention, and his relatives filed a missing-person report in the Perm region, where he is originally from.

Describing his physical condition after his release, Lapunov told the news conference, "I could barely crawl."

Lapunov and rights activists assisting him said he filed a complaint with Kremlin human rights ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova on August 29 but that the investigation had gone nowhere.

"There has been no investigation whatsoever," Igor Kalyapin, chairman of the Russian-based Committee for the Prevention of Torture, told reporters.

Moskalkova said on October 13 that her office had asked the authorities to open a probe in connection with a complaint from one individual over alleged abuse based on sexual orientation, though she did not give the person's name.

"When the investigation is finished, we can begin to talk about the full scope of information," the Interfax news agency quoted her as saying.

Entertainers Allegedly Targeted

Kochetkov of the Russian LGBT Network said that since April, his organization had been contacted by 79 people in connection with the alleged antigay campaign in Chechnya. Of those, 27 people were purportedly kidnapped and tortured, he said.

Many of those who reached out were also relatives and friends of those detained, Kochetkov said. He added that his organization had information that 15 people suspected of being gay were handed back to their relatives and have subsequently disappeared.

Kochetkov said Bakayev appeared to have been snatched up by the authorities in Chechnya in a fresh wave of antigay detentions targeting people in the entertainment industry.

Zelimkhan Bakayev (right) and the man purported to be him in a video supposedly shot in Germany.
Zelimkhan Bakayev (right) and the man purported to be him in a video supposedly shot in Germany.

The family of Bakayev, a pop singer with ambitions to make waves beyond Chechnya, has pressed the authorities in vain for information concerning his whereabouts.

The mystery over his fate deepened last month when a video posted on YouTube showed a man resembling Bakayev claiming to be in Germany. But the video, which was swiftly picked up by government-controlled media in Chechnya, contained no evidence that the singer was, in fact, in Germany.

The video also showed the man -- described in the YouTube teaser as Bakayev -- smoking an unlit hookah pipe in a room with the curtains completely drawn. On a table in the room was a can bearing the logo of an energy drink sold in Russia but not in Germany, while Russian media noted that furniture in the room was made by Russian producers.

Officials in Chechnya have suggested that Bakayev simply left the country.

Kochetkov told the news conference that police in Chechnya declined to open a criminal case in connection with Bakayev's disappearance.

Kochetkov added that other individuals linked to the entertainment industry in Chechnya were subjected to "torture" as the authorities "tried to get information about their acquaintance" with Bakayev and "whether they had sexual relations" with him.

Kadyrov, who is accused by rights activists of using his security forces to impose order and crush dissent, told the U.S. television channel HBO earlier this year: "We don't have those kinds of people here. We don't have any gays."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service, Novaya Gazeta, Interfax, and Current Time TV
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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