In a special report, VICE News were granted access to a location allegedly used to detain, torture and, in some cases, murder gay and bisexual men in the Russian province of Chechnya.
Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta claimed that at least six secret prisons were being used across Chechnya to hold and allegedly torture gay men across the area, estimating numbers above 100 people since they originally reported the story in early April. Now, VICE News enter Chechnya as the first foreign journalists to investigate the scene in an online video report.
The opening scene of the micro-documentary published by VICE News on YouTube sees a high ranking military official – Ayub Kataev – asking a group of soldiers if they have “purged” or arrested any gay men in the republic. As expected, the personnel reply with their rehearsed denials of any atrocities performed in their town of Argun.
Reports claim that gay Chechen men were locked up and tortured in an abandoned Argun police facility and other locations across the town.
“This abandoned building is where they say I tortured people. You can see it’s just dust, there are no footprints,” Kataev declared as VICE News journalist Hind Hassan pointed out various footprints around the derelict building. “There are no signs of any window bars,” he then defended himself with, later being unable to provide proof that the abominable accusations did not happen.
“My officers would not even want to touch such people, let alone beat or torture them,” he continued, denying the existence of an LGBT presence in the area.
Hassan explained that VICE News’ access to the prison was arranged through regional authorities who were keen to look innocent to the Western world, claiming that they don’t believe gay people exist in Chechnya. Even though the journalists were able to operate freely in the region, they were apparently closely monitored during the course of the shoot.
When VICE News interviewed a victim of the secret prisons that detained and tortured over 100 gay and bisexual men, it was made clear he recognised Ayub Kataev and footage of the alleged holding grounds. The victim, correlating to large amounts of other victim stories, told VICE News that he was electrocuted whilst in the prison and was “200% certain” he remembers being knocked to his knees and beaten by Kataev; a man still free in his own country.
“It’s a facility that was described to us and to others in great detail by numerous former detainees and their allegations are very weighty and very credible,” Tatiana Lokshina, Russia Programme Director for the Human Rights Watch explained. “This is actually the first time in many years that the Kremlin has pledged to investitage these egregious violations in Chechnya.”
Why this is the first investigation in a long time in Chechnya is unknown, but activists claim it may be down to global pressure from media outlets and governments. Though a spokesperson from the Russian LGBT Network told HISKIND that the UK has yet to help gay men trying to flee Chechnya, various European and non-European countries have welcomed LGBT people from Russia into their countries since the news broke in April.
Kheda Saratova, Chechnya’s President Ramzan Kadyrov’s lead human rights advisor claimed she would help gay people if they came to her, but later added that “today, if there was a member of the LGBT community, this person, knowing our traditions, could have simply gone to a train station and purchased a ticket without announcing it.”