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This Is Why LGBT People Are Being Abducted And Tortured In Chechnya

There's more to what's happening in the Russian republic of Chechnya than Putin's war on "gay propaganda."

Posted on April 21, 2017, at 9:00 a.m. ET

On April 1, the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that more than 100 gay men had been abducted by authorities in the Russian republic of Chechnya, and at least three had been killed.

Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

Since then, gay men from Chechnya have described brutal torture at the hands of the authorities, the journalist who broke the story has fled her home, and international figures, including US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, have denounced the violence.

One victim interviewed by Human Rights Watch said authorities treated him and others held in an unofficial detention facility "like animals."

“Beatings, electric shocks I could deal with… I was strong. But the humiliation was unbearable," he said. "The [police] spit in our faces, they called us disgusting, offensive names, they forced us into humiliating poses... When they finally released me, I was close to hanging myself. I cannot live with this, I just can’t.”

According to a report by The Guardian, as many as several hundred men may have been abducted.

How did we get here? Let's start with Chechnya: a Muslim-majority republic in southern Russia, where Russian troops fought two bloody wars against separatists in the 1990s and 2000s.

Wikimedia Commons / Via

The rebels wanted the area to become an independent country. The two wars killed tens of thousands of people and didn't result in full independence. Today Chechnya is part of Russia, but has autonomy to run its own affairs. Its approximately 1.4 million people are Russian citizens, though few are ethnic Russians.

Who runs Chechnya? Ramzan Kadyrov, a Kremlin loyalist and prolific Instagrammer accused of numerous atrocities and human rights abuses. He came to power in 2007.

Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

Essentially, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a deal with Kadyrov: Keep separatists at bay and Moscow will let you do what you like.

This means that even before these roundups of gay men, the authorities in Chechnya operated with impunity, conducting “extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture, and cruel and degrading treatment” for two decades, according to Human Rights Watch’s Tanya Lokshina.

“Local authorities are viciously and comprehensively cracking down on critics and anyone whose total loyalty to Kadyrov they deem questionable,” Lokshina said in a statement in January.

Kadyrov has shaped life in Chechnya through strict interpretations of Islam and a traditional code of conduct called adat. He's enforced mandatory modesty rules for women, he's supported polygamy, and, like Putin, he projects an uber-macho image.

@kadyrov_95 / Via

Kadyrov's use of religion and Chechen customs parallels the way Putin has pushed to unify Russia — and, critics say, conceal his lack of a political ideology — around "traditional" values and Russian Orthodox Christianity.

It's not easy to be LGBT in Russia, but that's especially so in Chechnya, where a person's sexuality can jeopardize their siblings' marriage prospects and lead to blackmail by the authorities.

Afp / AFP / Getty Images

Hate speech and violence against LGBT people has been on the rise since Putin signed a law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors in 2013. Vigilante groups have lured gay men into setups, where they assault and humiliate them, and post footage of the attacks online. Teachers have been outed and forced out of their jobs. In recent years many Russian LGBT people have fled the country to seek asylum abroad.

The roundups in Chechnya began after activists with the group GayRussia applied for permits to hold pride parades in cities across the country — including Nalchik, in the neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria republic. Vladimir Klimov, the activist who filed that request on March 9, is based some 1,500 miles away in Sverdlovsk region.

Dmitry Serebryakov / AFP / Getty Images

A copy of the application was posted March 10 in a VKontakte group for gay people from the Caucasus with the comment: "Is this true?"

"If so, you can forget about social networks and sit quietly jerking off to porn, because there will be such a scandal across the entire Caucasus region and an awakening of homophobia," one VK user wrote.

The request was denied, with the authorities citing the region's "traditional family values" in a statement that said "conducting events that directly or indirectly propagandize the idea of LGBT is unacceptable." Klimov told the website Caucasian Knot that after he filed the application, people from the region began threatening him by phone and over messaging platforms.

Moscow-based GayRussia leader Nikolai Alexeyev — a polarizing figure in Russian LGBT activist circles, pictured above — told Novaya Gazeta that petitioning the authorities to hold LGBT rights events around Russia is part of a strategy to gather denials for a case before the European Court of Human Rights.

Organizing a pride parade in Nalchik, one person wrote in an online LGBT group, would be like throwing "a match on a haystack. Not one gay person from the Caucasus will participate in this... Better if they leave the Caucasus alone and don't mess with things here. Because it's we who live here that bear the consequences."

Elena Fitkulina / AFP / Getty Images

Meanwhile, Chechen authorities' official response to the reports was that there are no gay men in Chechnya — but if there were, their families would have already sent them "somewhere from which there is no returning."

“You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” Kadyrov spokesman Alvi Karimov told Interfax. “If there were such people in Chechnya, the law enforcement organs wouldn’t need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning.”

He also cited the republic's high birthrate as proof there are no gay men there — because getting someone pregnant is obviously incompatible with being attracted to people of the same sex.

Then things got worse: On April 3, 15,000 people came to a televised rally in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, where a Kadyrov adviser accused Novaya Gazeta of libel and called its journalists "enemies of our faith and of our country."

The paper, known for some of the fiercest investigative journalism in Russia, announced that it was afraid for its reporters' lives. There's precedent for attacks on its staff: Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who covered human rights abuses in Chechnya, was gunned down inside her apartment building in 2006.

On April 18, Nikolai Alexeyev, the activist behind the push for LGBT rallies across Russia, announced that he was suing Novaya Gazeta for linking him to the violence and said there were "no proven facts of gays being prosecuted in Chechnya."

In a meeting with Putin Wednesday, Kadyrov vehemently denied reports that Chechnya was abducting and torturing LGBT people, saying, "It's uncomfortable to even talk about this."

Sputnik / Reuters

Kadyrov said the articles about the roundups were a provocation, though Putin didn't actually ask him about the reports. But Human Rights Watch's Tanya Lokshina said the fact they came up at all "was likely a result of consolidated and persistent international pressure," adding that "the Kremlin has not seen such outcry on Chechnya for many years."

Russia's State Prosecutor's Office said the regional prosecutor in Chechnya has opened an investigation into the reported abuses. But Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday investigators have not found evidence of state-sponsored abductions, torture, or killings of LGBT people in Chechnya. "Kadyrov's confirmation that everything will be done within a legal framework was of course approved by the president," he said.

Meanwhile, the Russian LGBT Network says it has heard from around 60 people targeted by the authorities for "their real or assumed homosexuality," who need help starting new lives outside Chechnya.

Olga Maltseva / AFP / Getty Images

"Some of these people are still in the area and are in need of urgent evacuation, while others have managed to relocate themselves but nevertheless need further assistance," the group said in a statement posted on its website April 17.

LGBT people in Chechnya are using messaging apps to alert each other about setups and scams offering "help," and confirm what assistance can be trusted.

The US State Department and the Canadian foreign minister have called on Russia to investigate the reported abuses, and the UK's Foreign Office has condemned them. Lokshina says "the West needs to keep the pressure up on Putin."

"If all the key international organizations and international actors continue to raise the issue with the Kremlin in one way or another, Russia’s president will be compelled to put an end to Kadyrov’s anti-gay purge," Lokshina wrote in a Moscow Times column.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.