MOSCOW, Russia – When Maxim Lapunov moved from Siberia to the Republic of Chechnya, a Muslim region of Russia, the last thing he expected was torture in a secret jail for gay people.
“I did like living in Chechnya – it’s a beautiful place, and the locals were very kind to me,” Mr. Lapunov said in an interview with Novaya Gazeta earlier this month.
He was selling air balloons in a shopping mall in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, when two strangers forced him to go with them in a car. The abductors took away Mr. Lapunov’s phone and brought him to a police office where their boss inspected the device and rudely asked him to name other gay people he knew. Mr. Lapunov refused. The boss commanded to “knock out of him” the required information.
“It was very humiliating. I denied everything, but they had found information on my phone. They made me organize a date with another guy,” Mr. Lapunov recalled.
The abductors went on the “date” too.
“They brought us back but this time to the basement floor. Then they started beating the other guy. It was brutal. These huge men were beating the young boy. His skin swelled immediately,” Mr. Lapunov added.
That night he did not sleep at all: every five minutes someone ran into his cell screaming, humiliating and blaming him. Early in the morning, the next shift of guards came – to beat Mr. Lapunov again. Homosexuality was the only “crime” he committed.
“They screamed ‘we will kill you’ and enumerated different ways to murder me. The chamber itself was eerie enough: blood covered one-quarter of the place. I was supposed to sleep on a piece of cardboard,” Mr. Lapunov said.
He spent 11 and a half days in that basement. All this time he was constantly hearing the sound of torture.
Chechnya, infamous for its human rights violations, has shown complete intolerance toward the LGBT community. According to the Russian LGBT Network, dozens of gay men have been killed during the “gay purge” associated with religious and “Caucasus honor” issues. The last wave of murders started in late December.
Novaya Gazeta reporter Elena Milashina was the first to uncover it. On April 1, she published an article in which she said more than a hundred gay people were arrested and tortured in Chechnya over winter and spring.
“Anti-gay campaign continues even now. Step by step we have proved it, but the federal center ignores it,” Ms. Milashina told The Globe Post.
Novaya Gazeta, a Moscow-based opposition newspaper, received threats from Chechnya over its “gay purge” investigation.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov repeatedly wrote on his Telegram channel that there were no gay men in the republic.
“If there are any, take them to Canada,” Mr. Kadyrov said in an interview with HBO.
2. Kadyrov says if there are any gay people in Chechnya they should be removed in order to purify the blood of the Chechen people. pic.twitter.com/oTshkbFGLO
— Yashar Ali ???? (@yashar) July 14, 2017
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin held a council with an ombudsman during which he promised to investigate journalists’ reports on the persecution of gays.
“I hope colleagues [the Attorney General and the Minister of Internal Affairs] will support it,” Mr. Putin said in a statement that appeared on the Kremlin website.
Blood Should Wash Away “Shame”
At the beginning of March, GayRussia.ru project applied for a permit to carry out gay pride parades in several big Caucasus cities, excluding Grozny. The attempts were immediately blocked by regional authorities. They also provoked anti-gay demonstrations with men across Caucasus republics demanding to clear the region from LGBT people.
Being gay is considered a “shame” for a whole clan in the Caucasus Muslim society. Only blood of the person who has disgraced the clan can wash the “shame” away. In some Caucasus republics, gays get killed by their relatives, but it appears that in Chechnya the massive “gay purge” was sanctioned on the official level.
The Russian LGBT Network organized a hotline for the Caucasus gay community. Seventy-five people called within the first two weeks. Some of them managed to run away and now hide in other parts of Russia or Europe, but others cannot afford to escape and have to hide in Chechnya.
“At some point, we stopped counting people who had phoned our hotline,” a Russian LGBT Network spokesperson told The Globe Post. “Almost all of them were residents of Chechnya. There were women as well, but they are usually pursued by their relatives only. We evacuated more than 50 survivors [of the purge] from Russia. Our goal is to evacuate all victims.”
All stories have the same plot: people were taken to a secret jail where police required them to give contacts of other gay people in the local community. Then the individuals were put in cells where they faced humiliation and torture and were told every single day that they don’t deserve to live. Sometimes the police officers made prisoners fight each other.
Usually, Chechen gay people spend up to two weeks in such places. Human rights activists call them “gay concentration camps.” The guards either torture their secret prisoners to death or bring them back to their families so the relatives can wash away “the shame” with murder.
“They threw him away in the yard, just like a bag of bones. I do not think he is alive anymore,” one of the Chechen gay community members wrote on social media.
Those who were lucky to survive the “gay concentration camps” were released – thanks to huge ransoms paid by their families.
Eyewitnesses say Speaker of the Chechen Parliament Magomed Daudov, who had previously worked in police, has often visited the secret jail for gay people in the Chechen city of Argun. He attended “a ceremony” of release at least once.
Mr. Daudov made a speech in front of the male relatives of the arrested gay men on how intolerable homosexuality is. After that, he named prisoners one by one and each time their relatives had to stand up and listen to humiliations.
“I don’t know for sure why they’ve released me. Probably thanks to my family and friends who were actively searching for me,” Mr. Lapunov said.
Before the release, the torturers made Mr. Lapunov sign some papers without reading, forced him to leave his fingerprints on a gun and recorded an outing video. After the release, Chechen policemen phoned him and his sister with threats several times.
“I realized they would never leave me alone and decided to do everything possible to stop this crime. Unfortunately, Russian authorities do not want to stop it,” Mr. Lapunov said.
Maxim Lapunov was the very first — and for now, the only — survivor who has publicly uncovered his identity. On October 16, he held a press conference where he said he had written a letter to the Investigative Committee of Russia disclosing everything that happened to an investigator.
“After the press conference, Maxim was evacuated from the country. He is in a safe place now,” Ms. Milashina told The Globe Post. As far as she knows, the next day the chief of The Investigative Committee expressed his discontent with the situation to the chief of North Caucasus department. And that was it. No criminal case was initiated.
“I do not think the case has any perspective now,” Igor Kalyapin, the head of the Committee Against Torture, told The Globe Post. The Committee spent weeks helping Maxim to stop the “gay purge”. Now Mr. Kalyapin believes the policemen have already destroyed all evidence.
Chechen officials have never denied the existence of “gay concentration camps.” They have denied the existence of gay people in the republic.