Chechnya seizes gay men who fled 1,000 miles seeking safety

Chechnya tracks down and imprisons gay Chechens who fled for their lives.

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Chechnya President Ramzan Kadyrov claims there are no homosexuals in Chechnya, but gay Chechens have been rounded up and imprisoned since 2017. (Photo courtesy of AP and The Independent)

The Independent reports on the case of Salekh Magamadov and Ismail Isayev, who thought they had found safety 1,000 miles away from the homophobic region that they fled to escape Chechnya’s “gay purge”.

Welcome back to Chechnya:

How Ramzan Kadyrov’s men tracked down and imprisoned LGBT evacuees

The location of Chechnya between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.
The location of the Russian republic of Chechnya between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

For 48 hours, a panicked phone call and ransacked apartment were the only clues; a sign that something was desperately wrong.

David Isteyev, the Russian LGBT Network activist who took the emergency call on [Feb. 4] , says it was difficult to make out much above the shrieking. But an SMS message immediately clarified things. “Pomogite!” it read. “Help!”

The sender, 20-year-old Salekh Magamadov, was one of hundreds of at-risk LGBT people Isteyev had helped evacuate from Chechnya, the increasingly intolerant republic nestled in the mountains of Russia’s southern border.

Salekh Magamadov and Ismail Isayev were seized at a safe house in Nizhny Novgorod and returned to Chechnya, more than 1,000 miles away. (Map courtesy of Google)

He had placed Magamadov in a safe house – he thought – in provincial Nizhny Novgorod, 500 miles east of Moscow, together with his friend, 17-year-old Ismail Isayev.

Both were waiting for visas to start a new life in Europe before they disappeared – forcibly returned, as it later transpired, back to Chechnya.

Lawyer Alexander Nemov says he reached the apartment within 40 minutes. By then, the only signs of life were of struggle. Cereals, clothes and other personal items, strewn all over the floor. Furniture, tables, and even a washing machine overturned. It was “as if they were looking for something,” he said.

Through his contacts, Nemov established the men had been apprehended by local police officers working with Chechen law enforcement; and that from Nizhny Novgorod they had been whisked away to Gudermes, Chechnya’s third city.

Read the appeal to Russia from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and more: “Ensure safety of two Chechen men arbitrarily detained and forcibly transferred to Chechnya”.

He set off for the North Caucasus immediately. For two days there was no information on the men’s whereabouts. But police admitted to the arrest on [Feb. 6], after Isayev’s mother had filed a missing person’s report. Nemov found the young men in a police station in Gudermes, exhausted and frightened.

He sat in on their initial interrogation, which he describes as unspecific in the extreme. “They were asked questions like whether they had seen Isis videos, or knew where Syria was,” he says. “It was almost as if they were fishing for things to charge them with.”

When they emerged from the station, another group of officers were waiting to take Magamadov and Isayev away. On [Feb. 7], Akhmed Dudayev, aide to Chechnya’s erratic and gay-obsessed leader Ramzan Kadyrov, revealed the authorities’ latest hand. The young men had “confessed” to “aiding and abetting a terrorist group”, he claimed – a crime that carries a sentence of up to 15 years’ imprisonment.

What’s more, the young men had decided they no longer needed the services of lawyers. Nemov dismisses the terror charges as absurd.

Activist Maxim Lapunov reunites with his partner after fleeing Chechnya. Lapunov was detained for 12 days by police, during which time he alleges he was beaten, tortured and raped. His story is told in the film “Welcome to Chechnya”. (Click to read article about the film.) (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“You only need to look at the way the boys were disappeared and then dragged 1,000 kilometres in secret to understand the the police are not being driven by legal process,” he said. The Russian LGBT Network, an NGO working on the front line of Chechnya’s “gay purge” since the first reports in 2017 – and which reached a global audience with last year’s award-winning documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” – says the men are being persecuted for their sexuality and anti-Kadyrov politics.

Not only gay, Magamadov and Isayev hold atheist and other opposition views. They were arrested last year for membership of a social media channel called Empty People. The forum’s admittedly primitive posts, criticising Kadyrov and religion, enraged the Chechen leadership.

For Ismail, it was the second time he had run into Kadyrov’s men.

In the course of his first arrest in 2019, officers found gay-themed anime cartoons on his phone. He had a lucky escape given the circumstances, released after desperate lobbying and a 300,000-ruble (£3,000) bribe paid by his mother. His young age at the time, 16, may also have played a role.

Adam Shahidov, advisor to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, addressed last spring's assembly at the main mosque in Grozny, Chechnya, which called for retribution against journalists who reported on mass arrests of suspected gays in Chechnya. (Photo courtesy of Grozny TV and Novaya Gazeta)
Adam Shahidov, advisor to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, addressed an assembly at the main mosque in Grozny, Chechnya, which called for retribution against journalists who reported on mass arrests of suspected gays in Chechnya. (Photo courtesy of Grozny TV and Novaya Gazeta)

Negotiations were much more difficult last year. Both men say they were tortured and humiliated in jail. They were eventually freed in May, after agreeing to become police informers. The problem was they had no intention of following the instructions, and after a period of intense pressure, were rescued by the Russian LGBT network in July.

Activist Isteyev says the combination of their opposition views and sexual orientation had made them particular targets for Kadyrov’s regime. He hatched a plan to keep the young men in Nizhny Novgorod, out of the reach of Chechen law enforcement, while a friendly European country processed visas for them.

But circumstances scuppered the scheme. A global pandemic brought document-processing down to a standstill. As the months ticked on, the young men, naively believing they were safe in central Russia, became somewhat loose and ready with security protocols.

Their crucial mistake was to set up a new social community of what they believed were like-minded individuals. Unbeknown to them, the group contained a police mole. This agent appears to have helped Kadyrov’s regime track the men down.

An administrator of 1ADAT, the most popular opposition social media channel in the North Caucasus, told The Independent that they had reliable information the men have been tortured with electricity.

Referring to their sources inside Chechen law enforcement, the administrator said the plan was initially even blacker. “Kadyrov’s men said they wanted to kill them, but because of the media spotlight, they decided they decided to keep them alive,” the administrator said. “How long for is another question.”

The Independent has been unable to verify the claims. But the lawyer Nemov said the circumstances – both sexuality and politics – would suggest their lives were in serious danger.

There was a “high chance” authorities were not allowing access to the young men because they had been tortured, he said. Activist Isteyev said he had no reason to doubt the men were being tortured.

That was the reason lawyers were not allowed to see them, he ventured: “It’s local practice not to let people out for love nor money until the wounds have healed. They start trading only when the bruises are gone.”

While social acceptance in Russia is growing, the state has adopted an increasingly aggressive stance on LGBT rights. A controversial law introduced in 2013, akin to the now-defunct Section 28 in Britain, prohibited the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”.

There have been attempts by some parliamentarians to remove parental rights from LGBT couples. Moscow has also stubbornly refused to investigate clear and repeated evidence of the murder and torture of hundreds of LGBT people in Chechnya.

The European Court of Human Rights appears to agree the threat to Magamadov and Isayev’s lives is credible. [The court] issued an unprecedented emergency order, obliging Russia to reveal where the young men were being held and to allow immediate access for lawyers.

It has given Moscow until Friday [Feb. 12] to respond.

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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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