We spoke with a gay man who was detained and tortured in Chechnya
Five people were detained in Moscow Thursday as they tried to deliver a petition with 2 million signatures calling on the Russian authorities to investigate the alleged torture and detention of gay people in the Russian region of Chechnya.
Reports of a campaign against gay men by Chechen security forces were first flagged by the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta last month and later corroborated by Human Rights Watch. The story has since drawn international attention and outrage, with major world leaders strongly condemning the practice.
Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin backed an inquiry into the claims, with Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov saying he would cooperate — while at the same time maintaining his stance that there are no “people of nontraditional orientation” in the Muslim republic.
While homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, major concerns remain. The government passed a law in 2013 that imposes heavy fines on anyone supplying information about homosexuality to people under 18. Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2016 highlights many issues related to the LGBT community that remain unaddressed in the country.
“David” was one of the men who was detained and tortured by the authorities in Chechnya. VICE News sat down with him in Moscow, where he told us about his nearly two-week ordeal and how he is coming to terms with what happened. (“David” requested to remain anonymous, citing concerns of reprisal for speaking out against Chechen officials.)
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How were you detained and why?
“There was a rumor in Grozny that arrests were happening in the city. I heard about it, but like any other man, I thought, not to me. Not gonna happen to me. Unfortunately it did happen to me.
In the evening they got me. At a crowded place. There was a very simple reason why. There had been a few arrests before me and one of those who had been arrested, in his phone they found messages to me. It was enough to find me, to ask a few questions.
A few officers picked me up and took me to the temporary detention facility. And right away, the same night, they started torturing me just the same as the others. They wanted to know who we knew, the ones that were part of the LGBT community. And this information, sadly, they were able to get.”
What did they do to you?
“They used electricity to torture. It is very painful when they attach pegs to your hands or other parts of your body, and they start spinning this machine with a handle that starts producing electricity. For many people, the tips of their fingers were bursting because the electricity was coming out of the bodies that way.
Later they made us beat each other up one by one. They put us on the floor and each of us had to take a pipe in our hands and hit three times the one that was laying on the floor. If you make a simple calculation, it is 100–150 hits per person.
The skin was just bursting and we were bleeding. They wouldn’t let us bleed. In time people smelt dreadfully of rotten meat. When the wounds started to rot, they put bags on us, they put bags on our heads.
And so every day we lived with this idea that if not today then tomorrow they will kill us and bury us somewhere.”
What questions were they asking — what did they try to find out?
“As a rule: ‘Give us the names, tell us who your friends are’ They would open your phone in front of you and would go into your WhatsApp messages, for example, and when there was nothing to pick on, they would just open avatars of this or that person who you were in contact with, no matter whether it was your relative, friend, or colleague and asked you, ‘And is this one same as you?’
You respond ‘no’ and they start torturing you. ‘Tell us. You will tell us anyway. Tell us.’
In order to avoid the torture, some people were giving affirmative answers to just be left alone. There was a case when one person that wasn’t part of LGBT admitted he was gay because he was made to. They beat him up until he admitted ‘Yes, I am like this’. And when he said ‘I am like this’, this pressure from him was relieved. But eventually they beat him up anyway.”
How long were you kept there for?
“We were kept there for nearly two weeks — then they let us go.”
“Give us the names, tell us who your friends are.”
Did they explain why they were letting you go?
“I think it was because we live in some sort of constitutional state, where unfortunately they can torture a person, but it’s not that easy to kill him and hide it on such a scale. There were too many of us. More than 100 people. And to hide the murder of such a number of people is just impossible. I think that is the reason why we were let go.
To be honest, I personally would prefer that they didn’t let me go because they were not just letting us go, they were handing us over to our families. They gathered us together in one big hall, humiliated us in front of our families, and also humiliated them, asking questions like: ‘Who did you raise? These people are the shame of the nation.’
That is why it was very painful, because you are the reason that your family is suffering.”
How did your family react?
Why do you think the authorities rounded up people in such big numbers?
“They arrested the first person. They took his phone and found some embarrassing data of his. Immediately they understood what kind of person he is. Then they arrested a few more people. This way, the chain reaction began.
And when, at other police stations, they found out that that practice was supported by other officers and heads of departments, they didn’t want to stay aside and decided that if the higher echelon supported this, they had to do it as well.”
Before being rounded up, was it hard to live in the Republic?
“There were always rumors that this or that person was arrested. But usually officers just wanted to make more cash by blackmailing. They were putting people in some type of books and these people had to constantly provide sums of money.”
So when this article was published in Novaya Gazeta, did the situation change?
“When the article came out in the Novaya Gazeta, it changed things, but not immediately. When this news was picked up by all the international media, then the Kremlin could not just not react to that. A huge scandal grew out of that. And of course our state governments had to react to that.
I have not heard of any arrests in the recent days or even weeks, I think this is the result of how the international mass media influenced the situation somehow.”
Was it safe for you to be in Chechnya?
“Of course I understood that it was not safe for me to stay there, but I really wanted to stay there, because whatever else, it is your home. I really wanted to stay, but soon after the news was published by the mass media, I heard that the police were trying to find even those who had been released.
Then I realized that no matter how much I wanted, there was no longer a place for me. And I just fled. Took my bag. Took a couple of things, got a taxi and went to another republic. And in a couple of days I was in Moscow already.
Once I arrived in Moscow, I had doubts but finally made the decision to seek help from a human rights organization. These human rights organizations connected me with the Russian LGBT network. That, as I realized later, really provided all the support necessary to those who were repressed.”
Do you feel safe here in Moscow?
“Sadly not. It seems like I am in another city. In the capital, I am far away from my Motherland, but Moscow is not the capital for Chechens and there are a few of my countrymen here.
That is why I avoid big shopping malls. I usually stay within my area and mainly don’t show my face to people because, when we were [in Chechnya], we were seen by too many officers.
I have to be cautious if I meet someone, because if it happens I am convinced, I will get into more trouble.”
Has there been any progress in obtaining visas from other countries?
“Sadly, I notice that the topic is cooling down. There isn’t any development with regards to our evacuation because all the sympathetic countries in the end refuse visas. They aren’t in a rush to help with that.
It is very sad because it is not nice when people show compassion but when it comes to practical help, they are not in a rush. Two months passed and they are still looking into this. We’ll wait and hope.”
Why do you think they slowed the visa process down?
“Most likely it is due to the fact that no matter what they say, we are from a Muslim region. We know what’s happening in the world right now, what the attitude is toward the Muslim community.
Perhaps they are afraid of extremism, or worse, terrorism. But they have to understand that the LGBT community is not involved in all that, and of course they don’t have a place amongst any extremists.”
What are you going to do if the situation isn’t going to change?
“To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t see the future picture at all.”
“My life there is totally destroyed. Nothing awaits me there — apart from danger.”
Why do they treat gay people this way in Chechnya?
“Because Chechnya is such a closed society, conservative. People like to follow the traditions of the Caucasus, their own laws, and they preserve them.
The thing is that people over there don’t live like in other countries; people live within their own families. And over there people live within their family line, their clan, etc. I mean, if you live in Chechnya you are not alone. You must think not only about yourself. By taking a step, you think not only what it’s going to be for you but also you must think what it’s gonna be like for the whole of your family.
Tolerance is a notion that will not find its place any time soon in the region — so I fled.”
Did you know anyone who was killed by relatives?
“I know from the people who were there with me that there are people who are dead. I don’t know how it happened. Whether it is because they could not stand it anymore or because their relatives did it, or the officers.
I don’t know. I don’t have this information. I just know they are no longer with us. And how it happened, I don’t know.”
If you returned to Chechnya what would happen to you?
“My life there is totally destroyed. Nothing awaits me there — apart from danger. I think that I would be arrested on some fabricated charges and they would keep me imprisoned for a long time. Unfortunately this happens often in our region. And what they would be doing in prison with a guy like me, we all know.”
If you could address the U.S. government, what would you ask of them?
“We all read the appeal and official statement of the U.S. state secretary about the events that happened to us in the Chechen Republic. And I would like to express words of gratitude. It’s very pleasant when you are taken care of by such a great country as USA that have long ago passed through this level of intolerance and dealt with it.
I want to remind them that LGBT people are wonderful people with a big open soul, a really big soul. It would be really great if besides the official statement [the U.S.] would help all those who find themselves in that situation.”
This interview was conducted in Russian, and translated into English by Anya Ryabinina. It has been edited and condensed. Mikhail Galustov contributed reporting to this story.
This video segment originally aired May 11, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
Cover: Chechya's head Ramzan Kadyrov attends the Victory Day military parade, marking the 72nd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in the Chechen capital Grozny, Russia, May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Said Tsarnayev