MOSCOW — For the first time since gruesome accounts of the systematic detention and torture of gay men began leaking out of Russia's republic of Chechnya, a young man has gone public with his story. Maxim Lapunov, 30, told reporters on Monday that he was demanding justice from the Russian government for the 12 days he spent locked in a blood-soaked jail cell, led out daily with a plastic bag over his head to be beaten by police officers demanding he confess to being gay.
Human rights activists and journalists say that up to 100 people, mainly young gay men, were caught up in what has been called a "gay pogrom" carried out by Chechen police and officials earlier this year. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has denied the campaign of violence, saying that Chechnya "has no gays."
Lapunov, who moved to Chechnya in 2015 and made a living as an entertainer, said he was selling balloons in March near a mall in Grozny, Chechnya's capital, when he was detained by plainclothes police officers and forced into a car. He was driven to a police station.
"The charge was that I am gay," Lapunov, dressed in a white T-shirt and blue cardigan, told reporters on Monday in a news conference at the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, which has published several explosive reports on the alleged torture of gay men in Chechnya.
When he refused a confession, he was led into a jail cell soaked with fresh blood, where he could hear "screams and groans" coming from somewhere in the bowels of the police station. Officers placed a plastic bag over his head with just a hole to breathe through, led him to an interrogation room, and forced his face against a wall and beat his "legs, hips, buttocks, back," he said. "They would stop briefly just to let me breathe. They made me get up when I was falling, and it went on and on."
"I thought they would kill me no matter what happened," he said, wiping away tears.
Lapunov, who is ethnically Russian, is the first person to make a formal complaint to Russia's powerful Investigative Committee challenging a government narrative that the "gay pogrom" in Chechnya never existed because no victims have come forward. Tanya Lokshina, the local head for Human Rights Watch, said that ethnic Chechen victims have been resistant to go public because of fear of retribution by their families.
On Friday, Tatyana Moskalkova, Russia's commissioner for human rights, confirmed she had received a single complaint about the allegations of torture in Chechnya that she forwarded to investigators. Human rights activists working with Lapunov say there has been no progress in that investigation.
"The bottom line is that we spent three weeks in Essentuki [the Investigative Committee's regional center for the North Caucasus], and we saw that the investigation was not carried out," said Vladimir Smirnov, a lawyer for the Committee Against Torture, an organization working on Lapunov's case. "We never went to Grozny, witnesses whom Maxim mentioned were never questioned. . . . Nothing was done in order to bring those who were guilty to liability."
Kadyrov, the powerful head of Chechnya, was installed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2007 with wide-reaching powers to suppress a militant insurgency in the region. He has built a powerful cult of personality and championed conservative values in the mostly Muslim region.
"If there are any [gays], take them to Canada. Praise be to God. Take them far away from us. To purify our blood, if there are any here, take them," he told HBO in a televised interview in July.
Earlier reports in Novaya Gazeta and other local media told similar stories of nighttime detentions and the use of torture methods including electric shocks. The reports suggested that three men had been killed and dozens more detained in a campaign of violence that began last winter. Many men have been spirited out of Chechnya to other regions in Russia, as well as abroad to Europe, the United States and Canada.
Igor Kochetkov, a gay rights activist who heads the Russian LGBT Network, also said at Tuesday's news conference that as many as 15 men released by police to their families had later disappeared, raising the specter of honor killings.
But the actual number of those who died and have been tortured is still unknown.
"The nightmares still happen," said Lapunov, who could barely walk when he was released after 12 days in captivity and has since received phone calls and text messages with threats not to speak out. By summer, he had decided to go public. "Every evening, every night, they brought in another person accused [of being gay]. The screams and groans still come back to me."