Russian man reveals he's a victim of Chechnya's 'gay purge'

A 30-year-old Russian man has identified himself as one of the victims of Chechnya’s so-called "gay purge,” an event global human rights groups have condemned as a Nazi-like effort to rid the region of homosexuals.

'His courage is amazing,' human rights activist says of Maxim Lapunov

Maxim Lapunov is the first Russian man to publicly identify himself as being targeted in Chechnya's 'gay purge.' He told a news conference in Moscow that when he was seized, 'one part of the jail cell was already blood-soaked.' (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

A 30-year-old Russian man has identified himself as one of the victims of Chechnya's so-called "gay purge," an event global human rights groups have condemned as a Nazi-like effort to rid the region of gay people.

He's the first person to publicly put his name and face on the record as being a victim of the roundup.

Maxim Lapunov had been living and working in the regional capital of Grozny when he was thrown in jail by Chechen police in March.

"The only charge they made was that I was gay," Lapunov told journalists at an invitation-only news conference in Moscow on Monday.

"One part of the jail cell was already blood-soaked. I was already stressed," he said.

"Then they started to beat me, and every 10 to 15 minutes they would come in and yell, 'He's gay and people like him should be killed.' I felt from all they said and acted (that) they would kill me in the end."

In May, Human Rights Watch reported that dozens of gay men in the mainly Muslim Russian republic were detained between February and April in unauthorized prisons. The report said they were usually tortured until they provided the names of other gays.
A gay rights activist holding a rainbow umbrella is detained by police during a rally marking May Day in downtown St. Petersburg, Russia, this year. There have been chilling accounts of roundups and torture of scores of gays in Chechnya, part of the Russian Federation. (Dmitri Lovetsky/Associated Press)

In at least two cases, the group claims, men were released back to their Chechen families who killed them because of "the stain on their family honour." Homophobia is rampant in Chechnya, and Human Rights Watch says so-called "honour killings" are not uncommon if a gay family member is outed.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the purge, and Canada has offered sanctuary to more than 30 gay men from the region.

Lapunov is not Muslim nor is he from Chechnya and he does not have family there, which makes discussing what happened to him somewhat safer.

Still, it's extremely rare in Russia to have any gay man publicly acknowledge his sexual orientation.
Chechen leader Ramzan Khadyrov smiles prior to President Vladimir Putin's annual state of the nation address in Moscow in 2016. Khadyrov has faced international criticism since a Russian newspaper reported this spring that his security forces had detained some 100 gay men, torturing or killing some of them. (Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press)

Lapunov told the news conference he had been selling balloons outside a Grozny mall when two men in plain clothes dragged him into a car.

Lapunov said he spent 12 days in custody, where he claims was savagely beaten by guards or police with wooden rods. He said police wanted to know about other gay people in Grozny.  

Lapunov said he believes he was targeted because he worked in the production and entertainment industry. He said his name may have shown up in the contacts of other gay men who were also arrested.

"They put my face to the wall. They beat me on the back of my legs and hips," said Lapunov. "I would collapse and they would give me a chance to catch my breath before telling me to get up again. And it would start again."

International condemnation

Following international condemnation of the Chechen actions, the Russian government said it would look into the detentions but never launched any formal investigations, citing the lack of official complaints.

Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation, but its authoritarian leader Ramzan Khadyrov wields a great deal of independence. He shuns interviews with Western media and has been quoted as saying that Chechnya has no gay people. 

Igor Kochetkov of the Russian LGBT Network was at Lapurnov's side during the news conference.

"It's a very serious situation. There have not been crimes like this on European territory since the Nazis — where they kill people just because they are gay," he said.

Kochetkov is just back from a visit to Canada where he was checking on the progress of the men who have already fled.
Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch speaks in 2015 at a news conference in Moscow. On Monday, she said Lapunov's courage in coming forward is 'amazing.' (Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press)

Tanya Lokshina, who co-authored the May report on the purge, called Lapunov incredibly brave

"His courage is amazing," she said.

The fact that he is the first person to file an official complaint about being tortured and beaten is significant, she said.

"Russian authorities at different levels made numerous statements about the fact that not a single victim filed an official complaint and that made it easy for officials to dismiss the complaint as rumours." 

However, Lokshina said Russian authorities have taken no action in over two months on Lapunov's complaint, which is why he decided to come forward now.

While many gay men have fled Chechnya and Russia — including those who were granted asylum in Canada — Lapunov says he has no plans to flee despite the risk the publicity brings to him and his family in Moscow.

"I don't want to leave Russia. I was born here.  Why should I run from my country?"

Grozny's welcoming sign hides a government agenda in Chechnya to persecute homosexuals, say rights groups. (Chris Brown/CBC)


Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a national reporter for CBC News on radio, TV and online, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.