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Witness steps forward after Chechnya’s anti-gay crackdown

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Ilya and Nohcho, gay men from Chechnya who use pseudonyms for safety, in a safe house in Moscow earlier this year. The targeted, collective trapping and torturing of gays that began this month in Chechnya is a new, dark turn in the region’s long history of rights abuses.

MOSCOW >> In what human rights workers are widely hailing as a courageous move, a gay man who says he was abducted and tortured in Chechnya has publicly identified himself and filed a complaint with the authorities.

The man, Maksim G. Lapunov, 30, who was caught up in a purge of gay men in Chechnya last spring, appeared before television cameras in Moscow today with a lawyer, the reporter who first broke the story for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta and representatives of human rights groups.

Lapunov recounted being bundled into a car, detained in the basement of a police station and beaten by men demanding that he reveal the identities of other gay men.

No formal charges were filed in his case.

“The accusations against me was that I was gay,” Lapunov said.

Last spring, Novaya Gazeta reported on a mass roundup of gay men by the regional authorities in Chechnya, a mostly Muslim region in southern Russia that fought two wars for independence.

Though Chechnya is now under Moscow’s control, the regional leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, is seen as having carte blanche to run affairs as he sees fit, in exchange for fealty to Moscow.

Human rights groups say the crackdown on gays was in part a populist move in a conservative, Muslim region where gay relationships are stigmatized, and in part the result of a culture of impunity and abuse.

After Novaya Gazeta reported on the roundup, Russian federal prosecutors said an investigation into the abductions would require that a victim file a police report — something victims were reluctant to do, given the role of the police in the abuse.

Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Lapunov, an ethnic Russian who had been living in Chechnya, said he decided to step forward because he wanted justice. Working with a lawyer from a Russian human rights group, the Committee Against Torture, he filed a report in August.

“They beat me with nightsticks, for a long time,” Lapunov said. “They beat me with their hands and feet. When I left Chechnya, I was literally crawling.”

While detained at the police station, Lapunov said, he heard screams of other men being tortured. He said he was not subjected to electrical shocks, but did see at the station a hand-cranked electrical generator, consistent with the device other gay men said had been used to torment them.

His family had reported him missing after he disappeared. His lawyer, Vladimir Smirnov, said he had documented his bruises with photographs after his release, could identify the police station where he was held and knew the names or nicknames of about a dozen police officers involved.

Smirnov said that filing the report with prosecutors in the North Caucasus, the region in southern Russia that includes Chechnya, put his client at grave risk, not least because the police have so far refused to provide him protection as a witness.

“To appeal to the authorities, and to appear here before you, required tremendous courage,” said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director for Human Rights Watch.

Initially, the legal team did not publicize the effort, hoping prosecutors would push ahead with an investigation. But the case stalled. Smirnov said prosecutors declined to escort Lapunov to Grozny, the Chechen capital, to allow him to identify the police station where he was detained, and the perpetrators.

Smirnov said that his client was now at risk — he has “a target on his forehead,” Smirnov said — without results to show for it.

At the news conference, organized by Novaya Gazeta and Human Rights Watch, Lapunov, who worked as an event planner, said he intended to press ahead with his legal options, and did not plan to seek asylum outside of Russia, as some victims of the crackdown have done.

“I don’t want to leave Russia,” Lapunov said. “I love this country. I was born here. I don’t want to run because of some scoundrel.”

The LGBT Network, a Russian group helping gay men and family members escape from Chechnya, said it had so far helped 79 people leave. The group said 15 gay men remained unaccounted for, including one who disappeared in August.

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