Inside Chechnya’s gut-wrenching ‘gay purge’ as BBC doc reveals how captives are tortured and clawed to death by rats

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“TURN his f*****g face this way, towards the camera,” says one of the torturers.

Their screaming victim, a gay man being held down, is grabbed by the hair so his agonised expression is caught on film – the thugs then laugh as they rape him out of humiliation.

The horrific scene is just one of the many disturbing videos intercepted by LGBT activists in Russia showing the sickening persecution of gay people in Chechnya.

Another shows a lesbian having a paving stone dropped on her head by he own relatives, while a third shows a man crying as brutes beat him and cut his hair off with a knife.

These appalling crimes are shown in a new BBC film, Welcome to Chechnya: The Gay Purge, a secretly-recorded documentary which looks into state-sponsored violence against gay people in the Russian republic, and the brave underground network trying to keep them safe.

The situation for gay people across the Russian Federation is dire: 76 per cent of Russians believe that homosexuality is a disease or a form of sexual perversion that needs to be treated, according to a 2015 poll.

But it’s particularly severe in the ultraconservative region of Chechnya, where even having a gay relative is considered shameful for the entire family.

“It is a disgrace to be gay in Chechnya,” says David Isteev, a Crisis Response Coordinator with the Russian LGBT Network.

“And for a family to find out that someone is gay? It is a shame so strong it can only be washed away with blood.”

Such bloodlust is immediately on display in the film, when a young woman referred to as “Anya” contacts David pleading for help.

Her uncle discovered she was a lesbian, and is insisting that she have sex with him or else he’ll tell her dad about her sexual orientation.

Anya knows that her father, an official in the Chechen government, will not tolerate her being gay.

“He’s going to kill me for sure,” Anya tells David.

She’s reaching out to him because the Russian LGBT Network secretly moves gay people out of Chechnya into safehouses in Moscow and St Petersburg before helping them get asylum in different countries.

Their extremely dangerous work has come in response to shocking escalations of violence in against gay men and women in Chechnya.

They’ve been scapegoated by homophobic legislation and government statements that have allowed criminals to hunt down and terrorise gays as much as they like.

One example is Putin’s so-called gay propaganda law, implemented in 2013, which criminalised anything that presents “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships”.

The Russia-wide law was justified on the grounds of protecting family values – but critics say it’s been used to justify prejudice and ultimately violence against gay people, who are deemed a threat to conservative values.

As one thug snarls in a video as he beats two boys for kissing: “All of our problems are because of people like you. We are going to kill you.”

The violence has come directly from the state too.

Chechnya, a mainly Muslim region in the south of Russia, has a bleak recent history with anti-LGBT governance.

Local sharia law in the 1990s made gay sex punishable by caning and even the death penalty for repeat offenders.

But even since returning to direct Russian rule in 2000, and adopting the nation’s human rights laws, state-backed abuses have continued.

The most extreme cases began in earnest in 2017 with the start of what is now internationally viewed as purges against gay people.

In February that year, a drug raid carried out by Chechen police found pictures and texts on one of the detainees’ phones that led them to believe he was gay.

The authorities tortured him and made him give up the identities of other people he knew to be gay.

They in turn were tortured and forced into giving up names.

In April 2017, Novaya Gazeta, a Russian-language opposition newspaper, cited sources in the Chechen special services that 100 gay men had been captured and tortured, and at least three died in extrajudicial killings.

Yelena Milashina, who originally reported the story, was forced into hiding for months due to threats from Chechen authorities and she was even beaten by a gang in February 2020 in an attack she believes was linked to her work exposing the purge.

The danger remains so high for gay Chechens that all of the contributors to the documentary have their faces digitally swapped with someone else to mask their true identity.

They put a rat on someone’s back and a pot over it. They heated the pot. The rat would claw through the back trying to get out

One of the men in the film describes what happens to gay people dragged to the now notorious Argun Prison north of Chechen capital, Grozny.

“They would tie wires to these fingers and electrocute us,” he says.

“They broke my nose too. And once we recovered, they started again with electric shocks and batons.”

He says his captors were demanding that he turn in other people like himself – and that he knew of other prisoners who endured even worse treatment.

“They put a rat on someone’s back and a pot over it. They heated the pot.

“The rat would claw through the back trying to get out. I heard someone died that way.

“But a lot of people died there.”

Many cases of gay people who go missing are never resolved.

One such case is that of Zelim Bakaev who disappeared in 2017 while attending his sister’s wedding in Chechnya.

His distraught mum pleaded with the government for answers, but the Chechen Ministry of Internal Affairs refused to look into his case.

Chechen officials say Bakaev simply left the country – media reports from anonymous sources say he was tortured to death.

Despite the shocking testimony of Argun’s inmates and pictures of painful injuries on gay people’s bodies after being detained, the local and federal government turn a blind eye to the abuse.

The hatred of gay people is so strong that security forces have even released gay detainees to their families with the encouragement that they should murder them in “honour killings”.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic and an admirer of Vladimir Putin, goes so far as to deny the existence of homosexual Chechens.

“We don’t have any gays,” Kadyrov said. “If there are any, take them to Canada. Praise be to god. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them.”

When asked about the accusations of systematic detention and torture, Kadyrov replied: “They made it up. They are devils. They are for sale.

“They are subhuman. God damn them for slandering us.”

The fear of the state-sanctioned brutality is so intense that when one of the gay men living in a safehouse slashes his wrists, the LGBT activists don’t want to risk calling an ambulance to help him.

They’re left to fight for his life on their own.

Although the situation is bleak, the documentary also showcases some of the extraordinary bravery from the LGBT community fighting back against the persecution.

One man, Maxim Lapunov, even takes the extraordinary step of identifying himself publicly and sharing his experiences in detention despite having to take his entire family into hiding in Europe for their own safety.

“I still have nightmares about that time,” he said at a press conference.

“Every night they brought in new people to accuse. Those screams, begging for mercy…

“It still haunts me.”

Lapunov filed a complaint against local police when he was released from detention, but it was instantly dismissed due to a lack of evidence.

He’s now taking his landmark claim to the European Court of Human Rights.

In the first two years of the gay purge in Chechnya, the Russian LGBT Network safely resettled 151 people abroad.

But for crisis coordinator David, he’ll carry on doing the work even as it’s getting harder.

“It’s harder for me now than it was a year ago, that’s a fact,” he says.

“I am tired. It’s harder to find money, harder to get visas.

“But we can’t just walk away. This story needs a proper ending. And that’s still very far away.

“Anyway, if they don’t kill you, you’re a winner.”

Welcome to Chechnya: The Gay Purge will be broadcast on Wednesday 1st July at 10pm on BBC Four.

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