Yesterday, I ran a news-conference at which a man described how he was rounded up and tortured during Chechnya’s anti-gay purge in the spring. One of dozens of victims of this large-scale “cleansing” operation against gay people in Chechnya, Maxim Lapunov, 30, is the only one who has dared to file an official complaint with the Russian authorities and then talk to the media, without hiding his face or real name. He is also the only non-Chechen local security officials had targeted because of his homosexuality.
As Lapunov spoke to a roomful of journalists, reliving the horrific experience of beatings and humiliation during his 12-day confinement in a dark, fetid basement, his hands shook and he had to stop several times to regain composure. On 16 March, security officials dragged him into a car in central Grozny, where he had been selling bright, festive balloons, took him to a police compound, pulled out several grisly torture devices, threatened to use them on him and to “tear him apart”.
The officials forced Lapunnov to call a gay acquaintance and invite him to a “meeting” — in fact a set-up with security officials waiting. Lapunov slept on the blood-stained floor of a tiny basement cell. He was beaten, and witnessed and heard as security officials beat and tortured other men presumed to be gay with electric shocks. Close to 30 others assumed to be gay were held at the facility during his time there — along with other detainees who weren’t part of the anti-gay round-ups.
Lapunov did not expect to survive. His legs, buttocks, ribs and back were all black and blue. When his torturers finally released him, he “could barely crawl”. Six months later, he still wakes up in a cold sweat from the piercing screams of other detainees in his nightmares.
Facing a broad international outcry over the purge, the Kremlin gradually moved from shrugging off the allegations to pledging to conduct an effective investigation and opening a federal-level inquest. However, high-level officials repeatedly flagged that not a single victim had stepped forward. They did not acknowledge the depth and legitimacy of victims’ fears about coming forward but rather used this to justify the investigation’s apparent lack of progress.
Like the rest of the victims, Lapunov had every reason to fear retaliation by Chechen authorities, especially as the security officials who released him warned him to keep silent. But, as a Russian man from Siberia who had gone to Chechnya for work, Lapunov did not have to face what every Chechen man caught in the purge feared: being targeted by his own relatives for “tarnishing family honour” or exposing his entire family to overwhelming stigma because of his homosexuality. Read more via HRW