“They came during the night,” Ahmed said. “They knocked on my door, not saying they are police, but when I opened the door and saw a couple of big, long-bearded men, I knew immediately.”
This is how Ahmed said his torture began in Chechnya, a semi-autonomous region in southeastern Russia. The short-bearded, blue-eyed 20-something, who has since fled to another part of the country, asked to use a pseudonym to protect his own safety, as well as the safety of family members still in Chechnya.
“I was driven to a police station,” Ahmed told NBC News via Skype, his face turned away from the camera while being recorded. “While police officers repeatedly asked me to betray other LGBTQ community members, I was beaten — for hours. They were using a plastic pipe.”
“I was telling them that I don’t know what they’re talking about, but they said that they know who I am,” he added. “Then they started torturing me with electricity.’
For at least two hours, Ahmed explained, police officers were putting electricity in his body through his fingers. He said the pain was unbearable.
“Like all your body is burning,” he said. “These police officers are accustomed to torturing people … Some men I know told me that some were left hanging from the ceiling, had been suffocated with a plastic bag or even raped with the police bat. This kind of torture can last for weeks.”
Life as a gay man in Chechnya is far from easy, according to Ahmed. Meeting other gay men can be a dangerous proposition, as authorities use people as bait to attract gay men, he claimed.
“There were many cases where this kind of ‘friendship’ resulted with arrest,” Ahmed explained. “I was not using social networks to meet other gay men, and I believe that this saved me for a long time. I was mostly in a circle of well-known, trusted people, and I was cautious, so that’s why police released me in the end. They didn’t have anything solid on me.”
Ahmed said no one was ever brought in to testify against him. He speculated that his “different appearance” is probably what made authorities suspect he’s gay.
Rachel Denber, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division, said that Ahmed is far from being the only person to face this type of police inquiry in Chechnya.
Human Rights Watch has interviewed several men who have been detained in Chechnya on suspicion of being gay or bisexual. Denber said these men have been through “horrific, depraved torture and humiliation,” including rape. While this torture is allegedly happening at the hands of Chechen authorities, Denber said these “cases of abduction and secret detention” are happening illegally in the region.
Igor Kochetkov, head of the Russian LGBT Network, a nongovernmental LGBTQ rights organization, said there are several dozen Chechens who have been detained and tortured in this most recent wave of persecution, which he said started at the end of 2018.
By Chechen law, he said, there are no legal grounds to deprive someone of their freedom due to their sexual orientation. He added that only few detainees manage to leave Chechnya, since authorities usually take their passports.
“Most of the Chechens who turn to us want to leave Russia, because they are afraid that the Chechen police or their own relatives will be able to find them anywhere in Russia,” Kochetkov explained.
Ahmed was among the lucky ones, as his passport was returned to him, and he was able to flee Chechnya. He is in another part of Russia and is hoping to leave for a country in Western Europe. He did not specify which country, to protect his safety, but he said his partner lives in a European country where gay rights are highly respected.
“I don’t feel safe here at all,” he said of Russia. “[Chechen leader Ramzan] Kadyrov’s people are so powerful that they can find me here, too. I keep a low profile here, and I don’t live a normal life. So until I leave Russia, I won’t be able to live free.”
Chechen authorities have repeatedly denied that this kind of persecution is happening in the republic. At the beginning of the year, Alvi Karimov, a spokesman for Kadyrov, the region’s strongman leader, said “it’s an absolute lie.” In 2017, following the reports of the initial “anti-gay purge,” Karimov stated, “You can't detain and oppress those who don't exist in the republic,” seemingly denying the existence of any gay people in Chechnya.
“That is totally not true,” Ahmed said of Karimov’s assertion. “There are gays even among Chechen political representatives.”
Ahmed said he would like to get married one day, but he lamented that same-sex marriage is so far away from being possible in Chechnya. He claimed even heterosexual couples can’t express their love openly in the region.
But despite what he’s been subjected to, Ahmed said Chechnya will always be his home: “If I could live there freely, I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”