One Year Later, Victims Of Chechnya’s Anti-Gay Purge Are Still Missing

"It would be very easy to carry out an investigation if the authorities wanted to," says Novaya Gazeta's Elena Milashina.

It’s been a year since the first reports of anti-gay purges in Chechnya emerged, but there is still much we don’t know—including the fate of many victims. There has still been no official investigation by Russian officials and no criminal cases opened.

When first confronted with the purges, Chechan strongman Ramzan Kadyrov insisted there couldn’t be any because there were no homosexuals in Chechnya. “This is nonsense,” he told Real Sports’ David Scott. “We don’t have those kinds of people here. We don’t have any gays. If there are any, take them to Canada.”

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But as details of the harassment, imprisonment, and torture of more than 100 men came to light, humanitarian groups leaped into action, call attention to the plight of victims and working to help them flee the republic. In the past year, the Russian LGBT Network has worked to ensure the safety of victims and publicize their testimony. “But one thing we could not do is launch an investigation and ensure criminal prosecution of the perpetrators,” says Network founder Igor Kochetkov. “The Russian authorities, apparently, do not want to do this.”

Ultimately 116 gay men were relocated out of Chechnya, 98 of them to locations outside Russia. Others, though, are still missing.

Russian pop singer Zelimkhan Bakaev was last seen in Grozny on August 8, 2017. His family says they haven’t heard from him since then and are unable to get answers about his fate. Human rights experts told NewNownNext they believe Bakaev was killed by authorities, perhaps accidentally as a result of torture.

Zelimkhan Bakaev

“The international community hoped that rumors of Zelim’s death were only that,” says Shawn Gaylor of Human Rights First. “But as we continued to raise concerns with the State Department, that hope dimmed. We are now forced to conclude that he was tragically swept up in this anti-gay purge and lost his life because of it.”

A video of a man resembling Bakaev surfaced after his disappearance, claiming he was safe in Germany, but advocates claim its an obvious fraud. At first authorities denied knowing anything about his whereabouts, but Kadyrov later hinted that perhaps Bakaev’s family had killed him because he was gay.

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Others have never been seen again, as well—some with families who’d rather not know what happened to them.

“People working for Kadyrov would target one person and through blackmail and beating would force him to surrender others,” a man named Ruslan told BBC Russia. “Some were caught, taken to the cellars, beaten violently, others were not found. Relatives sometimes did not even look for them, as they wanted to wash away the shame.” (After discovering he was gay, Ruslan’s family took away his passport and phone and locked him in his room for a month.)

Most of those who survived are too afraid to go public. Movsar Eskarkhanov, who shared his story with Time magazine, was later forced to apologize on national television. Now living as a refugee in Germany, he says authorities threatened his loved ones if he didn’t retract his claim of abuse. “They made it clear that if I continue to talk, there would be problems,” he told Kavkazsky Uzel. “They said that I must first think about my family.”

ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Another victim, Maxim Lapunov, recounted being arrested, locked in a bloody cellar, and beaten repeatedly in a press conference last year. After being fingered by other detainees, he was picked up by plainclothes officers last March. “The only charge they made was that I was gay,” he told reporters. “I could hardly walk. I was sure they were going to kill me, I was preparing for that.” The screams of other prisoners, he added, still plague his dreams.

Officials initially used a lack of formal complaints to justify ignoring the situation, but after Lapunov and others stepped forward, they could have easily investigated the atrocities “if they wanted to,” remarked Elena Milashina, the Novaya Gazeta reporter who first broke the story, at a press conference Tuesday.

“A year ago, this shocking news from Chechnya was ridiculed and dismissed by the Russian government,” said Amnesty International’s Denis Krivosheev in a statement. “Since then we have witnessed a shocking display of denial, evasion and inaction by the authorities, who have repeatedly refused to launch an official investigation into the reported heinous crimes and ignored credible evidence provided by Novaya Gazeta and others.”

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery