It sounds like something from a bad dream or, more aptly, a recurring nightmare: gay people rounded up, tortured, and incarcerated in secret detention sites that have been described as concentration camps.
In the Russian republic of Chechnya, gay men are being targeted by the government in a widespread purge. Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta was the first to report that at least 100 men have been arrested on suspicion of homosexuality, and three have been killed. Their findings have been confirmed by Human Rights Watch.
One Chechen man told the New York Times that he had arranged to meet an old friend on a secret chatroom for gay people. Instead, he was met by security officials at the meetup, and was immediately detained for 11 days. The officers tortured him with electric shocks and interrogated him for the names of other gay men. He refused to give up any information, and was subsequently released. He has since fled the region with the help of an LGBTQ rights organization.
Other Chechens have described similar treatment at secret government sites, involving electrocutions, interrogations, and beatings with wooden sticks and metal rods.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has denied reports of the anti-gay purge, dismissing the accounts as "provocative articles about the Chechen Republic, the supposed events … the supposed detentions."
Outrage is growing across the world, with protests in New York, London, Toronto, and Amsterdam. On Sunday, at Sackville Gardens in Manchester, UK, over 200 people gathered in solidarity with LGBTQ people in Chechnya to demand an end to the persecution and call for the British government to grant asylum to LGBTQ refugees from the country. (A petition calling on the Home Office to issue a statement to this effect has already received over 12,000 signatures.)
Photographer Christopher Bethell went down to document the scene and speak to the protesters assembled.
I'm, frankly, absolutely horrified. I feel sick and I want to cry every time I think about it. I can't believe that we have these messages of "never again," and yet we keep ignoring this and allowing it to happen. People are throwing around words like "concentration camps," and that's literally what it is. We're actually arresting people for simply existing, for loving who they love. They're being found out through gay dating apps and hunted. We're just completely ignoring this, none of our MPs or political advisers are talking about it. No one wants to consider that this is actually happening. It's just heartbreaking that we're ignoring it again. I know the Russian government isn't exactly pro-LGBT, but they need to realize that they can't just heard people into a camp like livestock and torture them in this way. It's barbaric.
I'm a trans gay man… I lived through the early AIDS outbreak. I watched gay relatives die, gay friends die of HIV and AIDS. There was a huge amount of prejudice when the virus set in. I think most of my adult life I have committed, where I can, to really watching what's happening towards LGBT people. It's sometimes frightening to be political. People often think "oh, we've won all the rights," but it's frightening sometimes to keep fighting. I think every time you feel a twinge of resistance it's really important to come, make a stand with people because it does invigorate everyone. Things can go backwards as well—as we're seeing with America.
I think I heard about Chechnya on the news, or maybe Facebook. It made me feel sick and horrified. I've done quite a lot of research on the history and on the 1930s and 1940s. I've also lived in Germany as my husband is German, so I am aware of how things can get out of hand with these kind of issues. It gets so much worse so much quicker if people don't make a stand and speak out about it. People need to make themselves visible and oppose it. I want [the Russian government] to see that there is a huge mass of people who believe that this is completely unacceptable. A mass of people who are prepared to stand up and say that everyone is a human being and everyone has the right to exist as they want to exist and to love who they want to love.
I have been doing a lot of campaigning on LGBTI+ issues for quite a long time now, for global equality, LGBT asylum seeker issues. It does bring some pain, knowing that at this time people are still going through these issues. In my country, Nigeria, and other Commonwealth countries, people are also still being persecuted for being LGBT. My message [to Russia] would be for them to respect the human rights of their own citizens… I am also sending it to every leader in the world that persecutes any type of person for the way they are. We need to stop being treated like this. We are humans. We are not demons. We are just being who we are. They should just accept us and give us the right to live and to love. That's all we ask for.
Danny, 25 and Dominic, 29
Danny: I was quite angry I hadn't heard about it from any mainstream media. It wasn't spoken about for three weeks. And now it's only being called allegations. It's a bit of a slap in the face, really.
Dominic: It made me quite sad, and a little bit scared as well. Russia, of course, borders Europe so it does feel quite close to home. It's almost like it's only a matter of time before it starts spreading, like everything else in the world right now.
Danny: I also feel disappointed because we've already been here once before. We learned a lesson so why are we regressing?
Dominic: It's an attack on being gay, but it's not just that—it's that everyone should be treated equally. Where is the line going to be drawn? He's done this with the gays, will he do this with non-white people? It's an attack on the self. It's 2017, this shouldn't be happening.
All photos and interviews by Christopher Bethell.