This segment originally aired June 19, 2017, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.
In Chechnya, where homophobia is widespread and encouraged, gay men face a host of brutal punishments and persecution. Following an attempt by activists to hold a pride parade in the Northern Caucuses in April, at least 100 gay men were rounded up and arrested. Several of those detained allege they were tortured, leading to an international outcry and prompting Russia to open an investigation into the claims.
Much of the alleged abuse took place at a notorious detention center in Argun, just north of the capital Grozny. VICE News obtained exclusive access to the now-abandoned buildings where the local prison warden and his officers reportedly beat and tortured men they suspected of being gay. Human Rights Watch has confirmed that this site is at the center of their investigation into homophobic abuse in Chechnya.
The center is now abandoned and falling into disrepair. The first building had no doors – they’d all been ripped out. Wires hung from the ceiling, and shattered glass littered the floor, mixed with large pieces of wood and debris. Hundreds of footprints covered the corridor floors, despite repeated denials that the buildings had been in recent use.
Ayub Kataev, prison warden and head of the ministry of internal affairs, initially stuck to the official Chechen response: absolute denial, not only about abuse but even the existence of gay people. “We don’t think these people exist among us,” he told VICE News, accusing those who reported the story of seeking to destabilize Chechnya.
“My officers would not even want to touch such people, if they exist, let alone beating or torturing them.” Kataev continued, accusing both the victims and Human Rights Watch of lying. Kataev suggested that the men making claims of torture were doing so in order “to get asylum, to leave the country and obtain free foreign citizenship.”
Kataev added: “Can they show me one person that I did that [to]? How can they prove that without a witness?”
VICE News showed the footage of Kataev to a man who said he was held and beaten at Argun center. The man asked to remain anonymous to protect his safety. He recognized both the prison buildings and Ayub Kataev. The victim claimed he’d been electrocuted inside the complex and added that he was “200 percent” certain that he remembered being brought to his knees and beaten by the warden.
“I am openly showing you everything, walking with you. I am not hiding anything from you,” Kataev insisted when challenged. “Let them prove that they were here. And how could we detain people here? Civilians live just over there. Imagine if I detained someone here illegally.”
The warden’s denials are no surprise, since even the state's highest authorities have shown no inclination to investigate claims of abuse. Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has staunchly denied all the allegations, which his spokesperson called “absolute lies and disinformation.” Many victims say they are too scared to make an official complaint, worried about possible reprisals against them or loved ones still in Chechnya.
Back at the official prison nearby, Kataev had his officers line up, standing at attention, guns in hands. “Was there a single case when I told you to arrest some kind of gays? Have you even heard about them?” he questioned.
“No,” the officers mumbled in response. “Was there a single case when I ordered you to torture someone here illegally and to arrest someone and bring them here?” “No,” they replied in unison.
Amnesty International’s Russia researcher Heather McGill responded to Kataev’s comments, telling VICE News, “The interview with Ayub Kataev clearly shows the extent of homophobia in Chechnya… It’s imperative that those at risk in Chechnya are able to access effective asylum procedures in other countries. So far only a handful of countries have offered asylum to gay men fleeing human rights violations in Chechnya.”