MOSCOW -- Local authorities in Chechnya are alleged to be out for blood when it comes to homosexuality. Human rights groups and a major Russian newspaper say that in recent months gay Chechens have been rounded up because of their sexual orientation, beaten, blackmailed, and even killed.
RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to three gay Chechen men who gave their personal accounts of their escapes from the abuse they faced in the southern Russian republic, where homosexuality is stigmatized and so-called honor killings carried out by family members are not uncommon.
The men's identities have been concealed for security reasons.
From Blackmail To Exile
In October, one man says, he was set up by friends he had known for 1 1/2 years. They had been regular guests at his home in the Chechen capital, Grozny, and they had spoken openly about various topics. Then came the blackmail -- one day they demanded 2.5 million rubles ($44,000) from him, threatening to publish audio and video evidence of his homosexuality if he didn't pay up.
He decided not to. He sold his car and fled Chechnya -- first for Krasnodar and then for Moscow, telling everyone he had emigrated to Europe.
In January, however, he returned to Grozny for family reasons. He promptly left, he says, but not before he was seen by police acquainted with his blackmailers. "Mom called and told me officers were asking for me. Then they took the phone from her and [a man called and] asked where I was," he says. "I replied that I was in Krasnodar. He said, 'Let me send a car for you, come here.'"
He says he knew exactly why they were contacting him and declined to travel to meet them. Then, he alleges, police officers took his brother hostage and threatened not to release him until he returned to Grozny. That evening, he says, he received a call from his sister and other relatives; they were trying to persuade him to return.
"Mom didn't know anything about me and what had happened. At the beginning, I couldn't tell her, but then I admitted that I'm gay. She said: 'That's not a problem, just come here. We know you didn't do anything bad, and they're saying that if everything they say about you is untrue then they will apologize before every member of the family.' But I realized that they wanted to lure me in to obtain information from me and then simply kill me."
One of his relatives, an officer, called him. "I knew that he knew and I told him: 'I'm gay.' He replied, 'I know, there is nothing left but to kill you.' I told him, 'OK I'll come, but promise that you will kill me without coming near me.' He wouldn't make that promise because he knew that they needed my acquaintances' contact details."
He never returned home, and today he is in a European country. He has ceased all contact with his family. He says he used to hear news of his family through an acquaintance from Grozny. He was told that the police had, in fact, detained his brother, and that every day police and officers of the Interior Ministry's SOBR special-police unit would come to the house and pressure his relatives, demanding that they persuade him to return.
Unfortunately, he says, he has since lost his connection home, and has no idea what is happening with his family. He can't phone his relatives, he says, because he is afraid their phones are tapped.
He says that many of his homosexual acquaintances disappeared from social networks in February and March -- around the time that Novaya Gazeta and human rights groups say that a new wave of persecution against homosexuals began. Some, he suggests, must be lying low. Others, he fears, might have fallen victim to the antigay campaign.
"One of my friends was arrested in December. Then they let him go, and he gave up all his friends," he says. "The last time I spoke to him two weeks ago, he cried that they had again come for him and were looking for him. I don't know where he is now."
Another acquaintance was returned to his family by officers on the condition they kill him. "His uncle killed him. I know this for sure. He was 20 or 21 years old," he says.
Jailed And Tortured
Although the first man who spoke to us got away without being tortured, the next one wasn't so lucky. He was detained in March after messaging a gay acquaintance, he says, and spent 10 days in a secret jail. "We lived in a big barracks -- there were 15 gays and another 20 drug addicts," he says. "But when we arrived, the status of the drug addicts rose significantly. They were allowed to torment us."
Every day in the prison, he says, he and the other gay inmates were beaten and humiliated. They were given women's names and forced to dance in front of each other, and were individually led away to another building where they were tortured. He says he was kicked and beaten with sticks, tortured by electric shock through clamps attached to his toes and fingers.
He was asked to hand over the contact details of other homosexuals, but he had had time to delete all such information from his phone and gave up no names. "They constantly threatened to kill us," he says. "I knew that I might not get out alive, but I would rather die myself than ruin someone else's life."
He and the other gay inmates slept on a bare floor with no covers, unlike the drug addicts, who slept on beds. "They were hot and opened the windows, but they had taken even our coats away," he recalls. "There was nothing for us to cover ourselves with."
They were allowed to go to the toilet three times a day: morning, afternoon, evening.
He was offered the chance to buy his freedom for 1 million rubles (about $17,500) -- money he didn't have. Nonetheless, he does not believe his captors' primary objective was extortion. "They were discussing among themselves how they must fight against people like us, and they told us not to do this ever again," he says. "It was a preventive action to stop [homosexuality]."
Ten days later, he says, the homosexual inmates were lined up in a row in the barracks and humiliated, one by one, in front of their relatives. Then they were handed over.
He was taken home and hid in his room. His father came to his room with a metal pipe in hand. "I told him to wait. I took off my T-shirt and showed him that I was already entirely blue [with bruising] -- what's left to beat? He left and didn't talk to me again."
He waited for his bruises to heal and then fled Grozny. He says he doesn't know what happened to the others. All of them, he says, have deleted their accounts from VKontakte (VK), the popular Russian social network. He learned on VK that the relatives of one were being offered condolences. He believes that person may have been killed by his relatives.
Fleeing After Police Beating
Our third man, who is 23, left his home as he always did, carrying a small backpack. But instead of going to work, he went to the airport and flew away, leaving Grozny -- and Chechnya -- forever.
Looking back at his situation, he says he had read about mass arrests of gays that reportedly took place in the beginning of March, but didn't take it seriously. He says he thought they were probably talking about past, isolated, cases of homosexuals being set up. "Then, at the end of March, a woman called, crying, sobbing, and saying that her son [a friend of his] had disappeared," he says. "[She] asked if he wasn't at my place. He wasn't at mine. He's 19 years old. He's also...in the know," he adds, a euphemism he uses because he considers the word "gay" to be taboo.
Other acquaintances began to disappear, he says. "I didn't sleep for several days, I stood by the window at night, waiting for them [the police] to come for me," he says. "I didn't eat a thing all day.... I had been writing to a friend on WhatsApp -- he had my number. They could have come at any moment."
He had already been caught in a setup. Last fall he met a man on VK, messaged him over the course of a month, and arranged to meet with him. When he finally saw him, he realized that the man had not been sending photos of himself, he says. But the man gave assurances, saying that he sent false pictures out of fear.
"He said, 'Let's go to my place.' He said he had an apartment in Grozny but it was not empty, and that he had a dacha out of town."
"I said, 'OK, let's go.' I got in the car. We drove. We were chatting normally. There was nothing to suggest I was being set up," he recalls. "And then he turned into a forest and I saw three people. I immediately understood that this was a setup, I was shocked. I said, 'Please, you don't need to do this.' He said, 'We will discuss this now.'"
He says the three men in the woods were dressed in black military uniform with insignia and stripes -- he recognized them as the officers of the SOBR special-police unit of the Interior Ministry.
"They stripped me naked. One filmed me on his telephone. Three of them beat me. They kicked me, broke my jaw. They said that this is a gay and that there shouldn't be defects like this in Chechnya."
They took his telephone, which had the contacts of friends and relatives. They threatened to post the video of him on the Internet and asked for 300,000 rubles ($5,260) in exchange for their silence.
When he got home, he says, no one saw the bruising on his body. He says he told his family that his broken jaw was from a fight. He had two months to raise the money. He sold his computer and borrowed from his relatives under various pretexts.
Translated by Tom Balmforth in Moscow, based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Sergei Khasov-Cassia