In mid-October, a gay Russian man became the first to officially accuse authorities in Chechnya of jailing and beating him as part of a broad crackdown on LGBT people.
Maxim Lapunov said during a news conference that unidentified people detained him on a street in the Russian region’s provincial capital, Grozny, in March and drove him to a detention facility.
Lapunov's story came almost ten full days before a leading Russian human rights group announced it “seriously fears” that Zelimkhan Bakayev, 26, a gay pop star, was killed as part of Chechnya’s deadly crackdown. According to the Guardian, Bakayev went missing in August when he left his home in Moscow to visit the capital, Grozny, for his sister’s wedding.
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“When a person disappears and the police force refuse to investigate his disappearance, we have serious fears for the life of that person,” Oleg Orlov, from Memorial, Russia’s oldest civil rights group, told AFP on Friday.
Lapunov's chilling account of guards beating him with sticks during the nearly two weeks he was kept in custody, and forcing him and his partner, who also was detained and beaten, to fight each other add weight to the concerns surrounding Bakayev.
“Day after day, they were telling me how precisely they want to kill me,” he said.
Lapunov is the first person to file a complaint with Russian authorities over a wave of arrests of gay people earlier this year that human rights defenders and media outlets say have taken place under Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.
Lapunov said other people in the same detention facility were tortured and beaten for being gay. He was let go after he signed a statement acknowledging he was gay and was told he would be killed if he talked about his time in detention, he said.
Lapunov, a resident of the Omsk region in Siberia, had a job in Chechnya.
“When I would fall, they would give me a break and then force me to stand up and continue for several more rounds,” he said of the beatings he received.
“When I was leaving Chechnya I could barely walk,” he said.
Human rights group say more than 100 gay men were arrested and subjected to beatings and torture during the spring, and some of them were killed. Other victims have spoken about the crackdown without revealing their identities.
“I keep having nightmares about what I went through there,” Lapunov said. “Those cries, moans and prays for mercy have left an imprint.”
The crackdown has drawn international opprobrium. Some foreign leaders have raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I want justice, I hope it will come,” Lapunov said. “I don’t want to feel unprotected in my own country, so that anyone from Chechnya could come after me and kill me at any moment.”
Igor Kalyapin, the head of the Committee against Torture, a Russian NGO that provided legal assistance to Lapunov, said the Russian investigative agency has dragged its feet on launching a probe based on his testimony even though Russia’s human rights commissioner followed the case.
Kadyrov and other officials in Chechnya have denied any crackdown on gay people.
The Kremlin has relied on Kadyrov to stabilize Chechnya after two devastating separatist wars, effectively allowing him to run the mostly Muslim region in the North Caucasus mountains like his personal fiefdom.
Kadyrov has enforced strict Islamic rules in Chechnya, relying on his feared security forces to stifle any dissent.
“There has been no official investigation into the hunt for gays that saw extrajudicial detentions and torture of dozens of people during the spring,” Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director at Human Rights Watch, said. “And the persecution of gays has continued on a smaller scale.”
LGBT activists said Chechen authorities have handed over some detainees to relatives along with demands that they be punished. Homosexuality is taboo in Chechnya, and most people there are prejudiced against gay people.
Activist Igor Kochetkov said his group has collected information about 15 detainees who have been missing since they were handed over to relatives and been missing since then.
“They provoke people to kill their relatives,” Kochetkov said.