MOSCOW -- A Russian LGBT activist group says it has received more than 10 appeals for help from homosexuals in Chechnya seeking to flee the southern Russian republic, where local authorities are accused of targeting homosexuals in an "unprecedented" campaign of persecution.
The Novaya Gazeta newspaper alleged on April 4 that Chechen authorities have rounded up and held scores of homosexuals in a "secret prison" and published testimony from alleged victims, one of whom said he was driven to the brink of suicide from the abuse he faced over his sexual orientation.
The report follows an earlier story, published by the newspaper on April 1, that more than 100 purportedly gay men in the Muslim-majority republic have been arrested by authorities in the past month -- and that at least three were killed. The allegations have since been corroborated by human rights activists but have been flatly denied by the Chechen authorities.
The head of the local Interior Ministry dismissed the earlier report as a "bad April Fools' joke," while the spokesman for Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's strongman leader, claimed there were no homosexuals in Chechnya. If they did exist, the spokesman argued, detentions would be unnecessary as relatives themselves would "send them somewhere they wouldn’t return from."
Activists with the Russian LGBT Network, an LGBT rights organization based in St. Petersburg, said they had become aware of the alleged abuses in Chechnya prior to Novaya Gazeta’s April 1 report and set up a hotline on March 29 to provide emergency help to homosexuals there.
Svetlana Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian LGBT network, told RFE/RL they have since received more than 10 appeals from men seeking help to leave the republic and find safe shelter elsewhere. Zakharova declined to provide concrete information related to the appeals out of concerns for the callers' safety.
She said processing the appeals is complicated by the need to verify the validity of the callers' claims, while the men phoning in are "terribly scared" and also appear doubtful their interlocutors can provide the security they need.
"We've verified three of the appeals and the information has checked out," Zakharova told RFE/RL. "We are already working on evacuating people."
Zakharova said the Russian LGBT network has past experience "evacuating" homosexuals from Chechnya and successfully relocated one man last year. She noted, however, the "unprecedented" scale of the current action against gay men.
"We have never before encountered information anywhere in Russia that hundreds of people have been detained, tortured, and even killed," she said. "I think this is an unprecedented case."
A spokesman for Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov claims that there are no homosexuals in the republic.
The campaign illustrates how the southern republic of Russia, ruled by Kadyrov with the backing of President Vladimir Putin, largely operates according to its own rules.
On April 3, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that police would "check" the allegations from Novaya Gazeta but said he was unable to confirm the existence of an investigation. He advised citizens who had complaints regarding police to appeal to the courts.
Tanya Lokshina, Human Rights Watch's Russia program director, on April 4 criticized the lack of a strong condemnation from Peskov, writing that it "is particularly disappointing that the Kremlin spokesman should tell the victims to use official channels to complain, without saying a word about any security guarantees."
Lokshina noted the vulnerability of LGBT people in Chechnya, "where homophobia is intense and rampant."
Novaya Gazeta said on April 4 that the recent campaign against homosexuals had come in two waves. It said the first began around February 20, when a man was detained under the influence of narcotics and was found to have revealing photos and videos on his phone, as well as the contacts of dozens of local homosexuals.
A second wave reportedly later began after GayRussia.Ru, a prominent Moscow-based gay-rights group, applied for official permission to hold gay-pride rallies in cities of the North Caucasus, not including Chechnya.
The gay-rights activists reportedly expected to receive refusals from local authorities so they could take the issue to the European Court of Human Rights. Their request was covered in the local press and roiled conservatives.
Novaya Gazeta has alleged that homosexuals were held in a "secret prison" in the city of Argun, where they were beaten and tortured. It said some were released after the payment of a ransom which, in some cases, relatives were only able to raise by selling their apartments. The newspaper said that at least three homosexuals had been killed and that it had unconfirmed information about a fourth death.
The newspaper on April 4 also published testimony from earlier purported victims, posting photographs of bruising and welts on their legs, buttocks, and backs. One man recounted how police had found out about his homosexuality and blackmailed him into regularly paying them to remain silent.
"Despite the tribute money, I was periodically taken to the police station, beaten up, tortured," he was quoted as saying. "They mocked me and humiliated me."
He said he was led to reject his homosexuality, considering it to be an "illness," and got married and started a family. The abuses continued, however, prompting him to flee to Moscow to "start a new life." He told the newspaper that his persecutors found him in Moscow, beat him up, and told him to pay money.
"I wanted to kill myself. The only reason I didn’t hang myself was because I found people who helped me leave the country," he was quoted as saying. "Now I go to a psychologist and I realize that it was stupid not to do this earlier."