The authorities in Chechnya have arrested more than 100 gay men and beaten to death at least three at a secret prison, says Novaya Gazeta, a Russian opposition newspaper famous for exposing rights abuses in the south Russian republic.
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On Tuesday, the paper quoted men who said they had survived torture at the prison. Other arrested men had disappeared.
This week Alvi Karimov, a spokesman for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, denied that there had been mass arrests of gay men “You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” he told Interfax.
But according to a man Novaya Gazeta identified as Eyewitness 1, “We have never had persecution of gays like what’s going on at home. It started on February 20,” said the witness, who is currently hiding in Russia.
“The police arrested one man for possession of painkillers, checked his phone and saw pornography, a video, lists of contacts, and messages to and from other gays. These contacts started the mass arrests. People were taken from work and home, and even if the person had the misfortune of being in the phone book. It started a chain reaction,” he said.
“If you’re taken in there are only three ways out: You can pay a huge sum I heard about 1.5 million or give other names. They can also release you to your relatives with the instruction: Handle it yourselves. Those who manage to get out usually run away and go into hiding.”
Such accounts corroborate comments by police sources who told the newspaper this week that arrested gay men are kept in a secret prison in the Chechen city of Argun near the capital Grozny. Another eyewitnesses, referred to as Eyewitness 2 by Novaya Gazeta, described the conditions at the prison.
He said he and other men were brought to a deserted area save for a place that looks “like a closed prison, one that no one officially knows about.”
“In the building next to us they’re keeping ‘Syrians’ people who are suspected of being in touch with fighters in Syria. There were a few dozens of us whose number kept changing some were let go, new ones were brought in. A few times a day we were brought out and beaten it was called questioning,” he said.
“The main goal was to figure out your contacts. If you’re taken in on suspicion of being gay, automatically they think all your contacts are gay. That’s why our phones weren’t disconnected when we were taken in: They were waiting for someone to call or text. Any man who calls or texts while you’re in is a new target. As soon as the person is brought in, the torture begins,” he added.
“They’ve hit us with pipes, always below the belt legs, hips, buttocks, lower back. They’ve called us ‘dogs that don’t have a right to live.’ They’ve made other inmates torture us, inmates who have been kept there for years most have lost all hope of getting out. And they didn’t really have a choice. We understand.”
Novaya Gazeta says it has withheld all details that could identify the witnesses, their friends or fellow detainees. Details on those who have been killed have been passed on to the Russian authorities in a plea to stop the persecution of gay men in Chechnya.
Novaya Gazeta has also published accounts by gay men who have called an anonymous hotline in recent days. One caller said he was arrested on February 28 and released on March 5 to the care of his father and brother. He had been kept with “15 more people, among them a hairdresser famous in Chechnya and a TV presenter.”
After his release, he escaped from Chechnya with his family. All the witnesses described in similar details how they were beaten, tortured and electrocuted while in prison. Some said they had witnessed prisoners beaten to death. Witnesses have also provided photographs documenting the abuse, some that were published by Novaya Gazeta.
Novaya Gazeta said the gay community in Chechnya had reached a kind of breaking point.
“We have not only seen a big number of calls to the hotline, we have seen how people overcome fear because they want to tell what happened. Members of the LGBT community are different from human-rights activists. You can stop being an activist, change your political views, even convert, but you can’t change the color of your skin or your sexual orientation,” Novaya Gazeta wrote.
“That’s why persecuted gays in Chechnya are breaking their silence. In Chechnya every prisoner, regardless of the sins he was arrested for, has a chance to survive. All but the gays. Even if the fact of their sexual orientation becomes public, they won’t be allowed to live by Chechen society. People who have been backed into a corner lose their fear.”