MOSCOW — Chechen state television promised over the weekend to produce a tell-all investigation into reports on the torture of gay men in that Russian republic — not into the question of torture itself, but into how the story saw the light of day.
It said that the existence of gays in Chechnya was “invented by opposition media.”
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, in a social-media post Sunday, blamed “so-called human rights organizations” that were “using the most unworthy methods, distorting reality, trying to blacken our society, lifestyle, traditions and customs.”
Chechnya has called on the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which first reported on the abuse and killings of gay men there, to recant its article.
“To finish this dangerous conflict between us once and for all, you have to fulfill just three conditions,” wrote Dzhambulat Umarov, the minister for social politics in the Chechen Republic. “First, you must apologize to the Chechen people for the disgusting nonsense that you spread.” He also demanded that reporters abandon the use of anonymous sources and stop complaining of threats received from Chechnya.
Elena Milashina, one of two Novaya Gazeta reporters who broke the story, has gone into hiding after receiving death threats.
Police and other law enforcement officials under Kadyrov, who fought the Russian government during Chechnya’s civil war before changing sides and who was named leader of Chechnya by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2007, have been accused of torture and collective punishment before. But the details of what appears to be the systematic imprisonment and torture of gay men, who Kadyrov insists do not exist in Chechnya, were particularly hair-raising.
“They attached wires from electroshockers to our hands and turned the dial of a generator, creating a shock. It was painful. I endured as much as I could, then lost consciousness and fell,” one man, who sent a photo showing bruises on his buttocks, wrote to Novaya Gazeta. The newspaper reported that more than 100 men had been detained and that three had been killed.
“When the current goes and your body starts to shake, you stop thinking and begin to scream,” the man wrote. “All this time you’re sitting and hear the screams of those being tortured.”
Russian officials insisted that there was not enough information for an investigation. But soon after the story was published on April 1, Novaya Gazeta’s website was knocked out by a distributed denial-of-service attack. Authorities in Chechnya, including religious leaders, began making threatening statements against the newspaper’s journalists.
“Insofar as an insult has been made against the age-old foundations of Chechen society and the dignity of male Chechens, as well as our faith, we promise that retribution will reach those who truly instigated this, wherever and whomever they may be, without a statute of limitations,” a collection of Islamic leaders supported by Kadyrov said in a statement.
For Novaya Gazeta, these are more than just idle threats. Two of the newspaper’s reporters who covered Chechnya have been murdered. In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter who covered the war in Chechnya, was shot to death in her apartment building in Moscow. Several Chechen men were convicted in the killing. In 2009, the reporter and human rights worker Natalya Estemirova was kidnapped in Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, and killed, her body left in the trunk of a car in a neighboring region. Both were critics of Kadyrov.
The newspaper issued a defiant statement.
“Silence and inaction in such a situation make all of those able to do anything accomplices,” the newspaper wrote last week. “So Novaya Gazeta is continuing to work in Chechnya. But we understand very well how high a price we may pay. The still uninvestigated murders of our colleagues, Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova, are clear proof of that.”
Other Russian independent media, including the popular Echo of Moscow radio station, have backed Novaya Gazeta. Alexei Venediktov, the Echo of Moscow editor in chief, who has also been threatened by Kadyrov, called the Chechen leaders a “homegrown ISIS.”
“I am not surprised by the threats made against our colleagues at Novaya Gazeta from representatives of the Chechen government and religious community,” Venediktov wrote in a blog on Echo of Moscow’s website. “These threats so resemble those made by ISIS against journalists recounting the atrocities of their religious fanatics that for a time you can confuse the authors of these messages.”
The reports by Novaya Gazeta have been corroborated by other news organizations, including the Russian-language edition of Radio Free Europe and the Guardian.