MOSCOW — The Islamist insurgency in Chechnya was crushed long ago, but the harsh security services apparatus remained in place. Police routinely round up gay men, and reports of torture are well documented.
In a new development, these police have now arrested ethnic Chechen gay men far from Chechnya. Security agents detained two brothers, 17-year-old Ismail Isayev and 20-year-old Salekh Magomadov, in a shelter in Nizhny Novgorod in central Russia earlier this month. The two brothers were active on social media and posted LGBTQ and Pride symbols.
Police brought both back to Chechnya by force, without any official allegations of a crime. Currently they are not allowed to see lawyers. Police depriving detainees of legal defense is a repressive method broadly used against opposition activists these days.
The Russian LGBTQ advocacy community is deeply worried the two brothers may be murdered, already the fate of more than a dozen Chechen gay men since the anti-gay crackdown began in 2016, soon after the last remnants of an Islamist terrorist movement were rounded up.
“This is just awful, one of the boys is underage, he might be traumatized for life,” Karen Shainyan, the host of Straight Talk with Gay People, told The Daily Beast.
The Russian LGBT Network, a community of activists scattered around the country, continues to save people from the purge. In many cases, it is a matter of rescuing people from probable executions. Chechen security officials forcefully “disappear” local gay men, or out them to their families and invite honor killings. Dozens of survivors have immigrated, finding asylum in Europe, or escaped to Russian provinces far from Chechnya, often resorting to living in shelters provided by the Network.
The younger brother, Isayev, a skinny teenager, was the first to reach out to the organization in October 2019. “He told us that Chechen police had discovered LGBT memes on his phone, they beat him up, kept him in jail for three or four days until his mother paid a 300,000 ruble bribe to get him out,” one of the Russian LGBT Network’s coordinators, David Isteyev, told The Daily Beast, referring to a sum of about $4,000. “He was only 16, he sounded terrified, so we helped him,” Isteyev said.
The teenager escaped from Chechnya to St. Petersburg, where he lived for a few months in a shelter for victims of the anti-gay crackdown, sites once considered safe. But by spring Chechen authorities in St. Petersburg discovered Isayev and brought him back to a Chechen jail, where the 20-year-old brother, Salekh, was already being interrogated. It was his first forced return, but not formally involving the law.
Their captors accused the brothers of chatting on a Telegram channel called Osal Nakh 95, which means the “shameless people” in Chechen, with 95 standing for Chechnya’s regional license plate code.
In a form of punishment for disrespecting Islam, police put Ismail and Salekh in front of a video camera and made them call for other young Chechens to quit Osal Nakh 95.
“Both gay brothers were violently treated and Salekh was running a fever, when he was captured that suggested he had COVID-19. Police declined to test him,” Isteev said in an interview on Tuesday. “They continued to beat Salekh up, then sprayed him with disinfectants.” In the video posted on social media, Salekh looks pale, he is breathing heavily. Police tried to turn the younger brother, Ismail, into an informant.
Police released the brothers after more than two months of violent interrogations. After a few weeks of a lockdown at home, the family decided it would be safer for the brothers to leave Chechnya again.
The Russian LGBT Network helped the victims to travel, found several shelters for Ismail and Salekh, first in a remote rural area, then Nizhny Novgorod, one of Russia’s largest cities, where they lived for a few peaceful months. On February 4, members of the security service in black uniforms captured Ismail and Salekh in their hideaway.
“This is a unique situation, the first in our practice when local law enforcement abducts people on an order from Chechnya, a region that neither respects Russian laws, nor human rights,” attorney Mark Alekseyev, who is defending Ismail and Salekh, told The Daily Beast. “Everything we have seen so far is illegal: I was not allowed to see my clients in Chechnya, which is against the law; we were not presented with any accusations, nor legal grounds for keeping my clients in custody.”
“We can say that the citizens have been kidnapped,” Alekseyev told AFP.
Chechnya’s regional leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has denied abusing gay men by asserting that Chechnya does not have a gay community. An official of Russia’s Ministry of Justice repeated Kadyrov’s words at the United Nations in 2018, dismissing the reports of more than 100 LGBT victims in the republic.
Very few people were brave enough to contradict the leader of the republic, where human rights defenders faced arrests, violent beatings, arson, and murder. “Kadyrov made it clear to us: we are not welcome in Chechnya,” Alexander Cherkasov, the chairman of Memorial, the Russian human rights group, told The Daily Beast in an interview.
The Committee of Prevention Torture, a Russian nongovernmental group, has been monitoring grim methods involved in interrogations in Chechnya, including the infliction of electric shocks and asphyxiation by a plastic bag.
“Whatever accusations—now Chechen officials are talking about terrorism—the two arrested brothers will admit anything fabricated against them by Chechen authorities, since every Chechen knows what they are capable of,” the head of the Committee, Igor Kaliapin, said in an interview for The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “We only hope this is not going to be one more death-in-custody case now.”
Attention from the European Court of Human Rights and the media could help, he said. On Monday, the Russian LGBT Network said, the ECHR ordered the Russian Federation to take “urgent action” concerning the two men if they are indeed in custody. “They should be immediately examined by independent health professionals and given unhindered access to their lawyer and close relatives (parents and/or siblings).”
The chairperson of the Russian LGBT Network, Mikhail Tumasov, is concerned about local law enforcement outside of Chechnya cooperating in the crackdown.
There is a danger of more gay men abducted from shelters on fabricated criminal cases, he said. “This is a turning point for our country: police stopped letting lawyers see their clients. There are thousands of detained opposition activists, struggling to see their defense lawyers in vain.”
Chechen gay men are among the most vulnerable groups in Russia, Tumasov said. “This is blatant lawlessness. Authorities use extraordinary mechanisms to terrify people. They have deprived us of a chance to have any contact with the arrested gay men, or a chance to provide attorneys for the victims. This is just awful, in my opinion. It destroys the foundation of democracy. The court system is not independent from the executive power any longer.”