That time I told the head of Chechen police I was gay. Standing in a jail cell: Reporter's notebook

"One of the most surreal nights of my life," said ABC News' James Longman.

October 23, 2019, 4:48 PM

One of the most surreal nights of my life started at a beauty parlor in Grozny. This city is the capital of the Chechen Republic -- part of the Russian Federation -- and the focus of what many are calling a gay purge over the last two years.

The abuses had slipped from the headlines, but over the course of a year, rights groups had told us that the persecution has continued and that authorities had waited for the backlash to subside. But the torture and imprisonment had never really stopped.

Years of war and a rather vague process for actually meeting relevant officials left us wondering how much we would actually see going to Chechnya. But we wanted to take the chance, and so, after meeting in Moscow, our team took the three hour flight to Grozny. As is so often the case in my work, I found myself in a place where the system seemed unpredictable at best.

Watch ABC News' James Longman's full report on "Nightline" THURSDAY, Oct. 24 at 12:35 a.m. ET

Chechnya is a notorious police state, viewed by the rest of Russia as a totalitarian regime where opposition isn't tolerated under strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Authorities are accused of arresting LGBTQ people, often having entrapped them in the first place, and subjecting them to beatings, electric shock, waterboarding and other abuses. The authorities deny all this, and have famously said gay people don’t even exist -- part of the reason I later thought it would be valid to bring up my own sexuality. I am gay.

We were advised to speak to Chechnya's "human right's official," and our surprise that such a position would even exist continued when we saw the building in which her office was located.

At a strip mall in central Grozny, along a corridor of hair dressers and nail salons, sits the small and unassuming office of Heda Saratova.

A former human rights campaigner herself, she now deals with social issues on behalf of the Chechen state, mostly focused on conducting a government campaign against radicalization.

After we waited two hours for her to arrive, Saratova appeared and led us inside. We repeated our desire to meet a representative from the security services and to visit a police site.

"Why didn’t you say so," she said. "I will make two calls."

She made the calls, speaking into the phone quietly. When she hung up, we asked her who she had spoken to.

"General Apti Alaudinov, head of the Chechen police," she said. "He’ll be here in 20 minutes."

Yes, we thought. But that will never happen, surely.

To our great surprise, in walked the general just 20 minutes later, wearing a full uniform. Saratova, this self-effacing woman could certainly pull some strings.

PHOTO: ABC News' James Longman spoke with Apti Alaudinov, the head of police in Chechnya, a Russian republic that has allegedly purged LGBTQ people over the last two years.
ABC News' James Longman spoke with Apti Alaudinov, the head of police in Chechnya, a Russian republic that has allegedly purged LGBTQ people over the last two years.
James Longman

This was quite a moment because Alaudinov is in charge of Chechnya's more than 10,000 police officers. What's more, he's on a U.S. sanctions list for human rights violations and it’s his police force that's been accused of torturing and imprisoning gay people.

One of the most important men in the country wanted to spend the evening with us and he seemed delighted at the attention.

"Yes of course you can interview me," Alaudinov exclaimed. "We have nothing to hide."

Out on the street, Alaudinov launched into a tour, leading us down Grozny’s freshly rebuilt central street. Everyone recognized him. Young men would stand to attention and bow as we walked past. Mothers strolling with children for the evening would stop and point, whispering to one another.

"You see how peaceful Grozny is?" Alaudinov said with a large smile across his face. "Why do you call it a police state?"

Occasionally, with all the bravado of a benevolent dictator, he would suddenly stop a passing local and say, "You, tell them how safe it is." The rather shocked passers-by would look at me wide-eyed and nod quickly before scuttling off.

"There is a small possibility that a man in uniform would elicit the right answer," I said, prompting more laughter from Alaudinov.

Grozny is a revelation; two brutal wars had totally flattened it. But with huge investment from Russia -- and increasingly, parts of the Persian Gulf -- it is turning into a modern city. An obsession with flashing neon lights turns nighttime Grozny into something of an amusement park, but with families sitting out, eating and drinking in the warm evening air. It was as the general said: a peaceful scene.

But under the surface, all is not as it seems. And I wanted to challenge the general further about the crackdown on LGBTQ people.

"We shall have dinner!" Alaudinov exclaimed next.

At a restaurant nearby, a startled waitress subtly removed a "reserved" sign from a table at a window and offered Alaudinov the place. Sushi appeared for him very soon after. Our chicken not quite so fast.

What followed was an hour or so of mostly listening to him speak. His love for horses. His war record. The brothers he lost in the fighting. And then, out of nowhere, he stopped and said, "You know, there is a question I have been wanting to ask. Is one of you gay?"

There was stunned silence, like a moment in a spy movie when the villain reveals his trap. We were not expecting this twist.

The team turned to me, their eyes asking if I'd tell him now, later or not at all. I spoke quickly, laughing, "None of us! Why do you think that?"

"I just don't understand why you are interested in this issue," he replied.

It was as if one of us had to be gay, because why else would anyone care? A producer, John, quickly diverted attention, telling Alaudinov about his gay cousin. But earlier, his views on gay people had been made clear. No, they weren't rounding them up, because Chechnya just doesn't have gay people.

"For us it’s completely crazy that one of us could be gay," Alaudinov said. "Seriously! Ask any Chechen, 'Do you have any gays in your family?' He will punch you. Why? Because to him it is an insult."

We really did not expect him to ask if one of the team were gay. And I certainly had no intention of saying anything. But that moment at dinner made me wonder if it might be possible to eventually tell him.

He may of course have already known. You wouldn’t need the mechanisms available to you in a security state to just google my name. But we didn’t think so, because our meeting had been so hastily arranged.

Seeing that he was enjoying himself, we decided to try our luck. Any possibility of a visit to a prison? We were prodding the tiger. So far, he was enjoying it. It was clear to us he saw this as a PR opportunity of sorts. But he was opening up about a world few have seen.

And so, at close to 11 p.m., we were bundled out of the restaurant and into his car. We were heading to a police station.

Because Chechen officials totally deny the accounts of police brutality toward gay people, we did not expect to see something incriminating or necessarily much at all. But as we swept into the parade ground and we were met by 50 or so armed commandos, all standing to attention.

As we stood in front of the spectacle, I asked him what he'd say to human rights campaigners who say men like these are responsible for atrocities.

"There are 10,500 policemen here," Alaudinov said. "Can you find me one state in the world where a policeman hasn’t committed some kind of crime."

"People may not like us, but nobody can disagree that we cannot maintain our republic in order and stability," he continued. "We are the most effective defenders of security in any state."

It wasn't exactly a denial. But as he stroked a cat that apparently lives at the station (have I mentioned how surreal all this was?), we asked to go inside.

I’ve definitely had some awkward coming out moments in my life. But I don’t think any can compare to telling a man who is the head of a police force accused of torturing hundreds of LGBTQ people that I’m gay.

We made our way to the prison block, and by this time, we had amassed a small following of armed guards and other officials: a bigger audience for the general's one-man show.

PHOTO: ABC News' James Longman toured a prison with Apti Alaudinov, the head of police in Chechnya, a Russian republic that has allegedly purged LGBTQ people over the last two years.
ABC News' James Longman toured a prison with Apti Alaudinov, the head of police in Chechnya, a Russian republic that has allegedly purged LGBTQ people over the last two years.
James Longman

As we walked, I gradually got the sense that it might be ok to tell him I’m gay. I asked the others quietly. "I think I’m going to tell him guys, are you OK with that?" They were.

And so, as we stood in the cell, I said, "Do you remember earlier when you asked if one of us was gay? What if I told you I was gay?"

An eternity passed as I waited for the translation. It didn’t seem to register. Strangely, he asked, "How does it work?"

I could feel the guards shifting behind the camera. John later told me he heard them all whispering to each other.

Alaudinov was doing his best to make it seem like it didn’t matter to him.

"There is no problem. Nobody has any issues with you. You are a guest. Come here as a guest and leave from here as a guest," he said. "You don’t understand something: You can say anything about us -- any horror stories -- but I, as [the] head of Chechen Police, I don’t have a goal to see who you are and what your sexual orientation is. I am not interested to know it. It’s your life and you should live however you want. But at the same time, don’t teach us how we have to live."

Behind a nervous smile, I told him I was scared to tell him because of what we had heard goes on in these prisons. My heart was racing, and so, instinctively, I took his hand and placed it on my chest. All it did was make him laugh.

And so there I found myself, trying to smile as Chechnya’s police chief had his arm around me, his exuberant laugh ringing off the walls of the cell.

The only thing I could really think of doing now was leaving. As we walked the corridors, I could feel the eyes of Alaudinov's men on me. He insisted on driving us back to our hotel, so it was an opportunity for the conversation to continue.

I told him that this wasn’t about me -- that young men had sat across from me crying, telling me their stories of what had happened to them. He repeated his denials and said this was part of a plot by people who weren’t Chechen in order to gain refugee status abroad.

I think for Alaudinov, it really didn’t matter to him that I was gay. In fact, I think that perhaps it reaffirmed his own values to him: that Chechnya has a superior culture, and that the West has allowed homosexuality to weaken ours.

I told him my sexuality because perhaps on some level I thought that I could shift something in his mind and challenge his perceptions about gay people.

But as we sat in the parking lot of our hotel, I said to him, "We have spent the afternoon [and] evening together. We’ve shared a meal. You’ve been very welcoming, you’ve shown us around. Do you think I am less of a man than you?"

The smiles were gone. He turned to me with his face illuminated in the street lamp's orange glow, and said simply, "I will tell you honestly, I wouldn’t like you to be my friend."

This report was featured in the Friday, Oct. 25, 2019, episode of ABC News' daily news podcast, "Start Here."