This article originally appeared on VICE News US.
At least two people have died after mass arrests in a fresh purge targeting Chechnya's gay community, the Russian LGBT Network claimed Monday.
Rumors of a renewed clampdown in the predominantly Muslim region have circulated for weeks, but the activist group said new information suggests that more than three dozen people have been detained and two of those were killed following torture.
“We know that around 40 people were detained, both men and women,” Igor Kochetkov, program director of the Russian LGBT Network, said in a statement. “At least two people died as a result of torture. We also know that the detentions are conducted by the law enforcement officers, and the victims are detained in Argun.”
Authorities in Chechnya dismissed the reports Monday as “misinformation.”
“All this, if to speak in literary language, is untruth and misinformation. There are no prisons and places of detention in the Chechen Republic that are not part of the FSIN system,” Alvi Karimov, spokesperson for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, told Russian outlet RBK.
Independent Russian media outlet Meduza reported Monday that a victim who managed to escape detention said the death toll from the current purge could be as high as 20 — describing the situation as “a genocide.”
Argun is the same facility where more than 100 gay men were detained and tortured during a similar crackdown in 2017, which reportedly led to a number of deaths. At the time Kadyrov declared there was no crackdown because there were no LGBT individuals living in Chechnya.
Yet unlike in 2017, authorities overseeing the current purge are reportedly confiscating victims’ travel documents.
“The local police make every effort to prevent victims from leaving the region or applying to the courts in the future,” Kochetkov said. “They take away documents, they threatened the victims with criminal proceedings, against them or their close ones, and they force them to sign empty forms.”
The latest wave of detentions began when the administrator of a group on VKontakte — a Russian version of Facebook — was detained at the end of December. The group was predominantly used by gay men in Chechnya to meet others online.
Authorities expanded the crackdown after they gained access to the phone numbers and names from the administrator’s cell phone.
Russian authorities have strenuously denied allegations of arbitrary detention and torture in the North Caucasus, even after the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe last month published a report on human rights abuses in Chechnya and called on the Kremlin to investigate the reports.
A spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the time they were looking into the report.
Cover image: Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov attends a ceremony to confer the 'City of Military Glory' title to five Russian towns, at the Kremlin on June 22, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)