One of the activists from the group LGBT Network, Nikita Safranov, speaking to ABC News from inside the police station where he and the four others were being detained, said they were arrested today while walking toward the offices of Russia’s Prosecutor General in central Moscow.
The group was carrying large stacks of boxes stamped with the words “Justice for the Chechen 100” and filled with copies of the petition. Safranov said they expected to be charged with staging an unsanctioned demonstration.
The group's petition, which was launched on Change.org, calls for Russia’s prosecutor to investigate recent reports that over 100 men have been kidnapped and tortured by authorities in Chechnya as part of an alleged organized roundup targeting the gay community there.
Reports of the alleged roundup emerged in early April after the oppositional Russian investigative newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, published articles detailing accounts of how Chechen security forces were detaining the men and holding them in secret prisons. The newspaper said sources in Chechnya’s security services and the LGBT community described the detentions as a “prophylactic purge” against homosexuals in the southern Russian republic, where homosexuality is widely viewed as bringing shame on a family.
Since then, testimonies have emerged from some of the men detained, detailing brutal tortures. One man, who requested anonymity in an interview with ABC News last month, described how Chechen law enforcement agents had kept him in jail for a week, beating him with plastic rods and torturing him with electric shocks.
"They beat me around the eyes, around the head. They detained me for more than a week. They didn’t give anything to eat, the only water I could drink was when they allowed me to pray, during ablutions," said the man, whom ABC News is identifying as Z.
Testimony from Z. and from other men published in Novaya Gazeta, the Guardian and The New York Times said the agents demanded that those detained name other gay men, forming a chain of terror. Police went through the men's phones looking for their gay acquaintances, they said, then lured other men into traps and took them to be tortured.
Irina Gordienko, a reporter at Novaya Gazeta, told ABC News that the newspaper believes around 200 men had been detained and that is has proof that at least three men have been killed in the purge, and fears that there were likely more.
Z., who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concerns for his safety, told ABC News he was released after the agents could find no proof he was gay. But he then fled Chechnya when a mutual acquaintance was detained, fearing authorities would return for him again.
A conservative, predominantly Muslim region, attitudes in Chechnya to homosexuality were already very hostile. But recently the region's president, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been aggressively promoting conservative or what he calls traditional values. Operating with almost total impunity in the region that is still traumatized from two savage separatist wars in the 1990s and early 2000s, Chechnya's security forces under Kadyrov have a long-documented history of kidnapping, torturing and killing his opponents. The testimonies suggest they have now been turned against the gay community.
Chechen authorities have denied that the detentions are taking place. Kadyrov and other Chechen officials have said such persecutions were impossible because Chechnya does not have gay men.
“They were never among us Chechens,” Kadyrov told Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. “It can only be those who, not being Chechens, call themselves so in order to get the chance to go the West."
The regional branch of the Prosecutor’s Office in Chechnya has opened an investigation into the reports, but the denunciations from Kadyrov, who personally controls law enforcement in the region, mean few believe anything will come from it.
The Kremlin has also been reluctant to respond to the reports. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, initially told reporters that anyone suffering abuses should report them to law enforcement.
Putin himself commented publicly for the first time on the reports last week, saying he would ask federal law enforcement to investigate.
The reports of the alleged detentions have prompted condemnation from around the world. The foreign ministers of Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, France and Sweden sent a joint letter last week calling on Russia to investigate.
LGBT Network has been helping gay men to leave Chechnya. To date, the organization told ABC News, it has helped 42 people escape, providing some of them with safe houses within Russia. Some of those who have left, however, said they are still terrified that the Chechen authorities or their own relatives will find them and hurt them. Kadyrov and his inner circle have been repeatedly accused by rights groups and European police of running death squads to assassinate political opponents in Russia and abroad.
"They have very long arms and they will hound us," said Z.. "I have to get out of here."
LGBT Network is trying to get the men asylum abroad in Europe or the United States.
Igor Kochetkov, the group's director, said three European countries were examining the possibility of offering asylum but so far no offers had been made.