Lonely Witness: A Gay Russian's Stalled Bid For Justice In Chechnya Crackdown

On March 21, 2017, an e-mail landed in the in-box of the human rights ombudswoman for the administration of Russia's central Perm region. The sender's relative, Maksim Lapunov, had disappeared a week earlier in Grozny, the capital of Russia's southern republic of Chechnya, the message read.

"According to friends, law enforcement officers took him away, and there is no other information. I'm asking ask you to help find him!" the sender wrote, according to a copy of the e-mail obtained by RFE/RL.

A similar missing-person report for Lapunov had been filed with the Russian Interior Ministry the same day.

According to one friend, those close to Lapunov immediately suspected why he had vanished: Lapunov is gay.

Considering persistent reports of disappearances and extrajudicial killings in Chechnya, a mainly Muslim region that was ravaged by two wars over the past 25 years, some presumed Lapunov was dead.

"We didn't really have any hope that we would see him alive again," the friend told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the matter.

But Lapunov, a party organizer and balloon artist, was alive. And after fleeing Chechnya, he appeared at a Moscow news conference six months later to give a public explanation for his disappearance: He had been abducted on the street by unidentified men while selling his balloons and held for 12 days in the cellar of a Grozny police facility.

During his captivity, Lapunov said, he was subjected to vicious beatings and psychological terror due to his sexual orientation -- and saw and heard others in the cellar being beaten and tortured as well amid what rights groups call a purge of gay and bisexual men by authorities in Chechnya.

"Everyone accused me of being gay and said that people like me should be killed. They put a plastic bag on my head when they took me out of the cell. They wrapped my head with Scotch tape, leaving only a slot to breathe through. They beat my legs and arms," Lapunov told the Moscow news conference one year ago this week.

When he was finally released and left Chechnya at the end of March 2017, he could "barely crawl," Lapunov told reporters.

Lapunov's decision to come forward with the story made him the first -- and, to date, only – person to claim on the record that he was a victim of an antigay crackdown in Chechnya in the spring of 2017 that triggered a global outcry.

While other gay men have anonymously told RFE/RL and other media outlets of torture and other abuses they faced in the crackdown, Lapunov meticulously detailed his claim in black and white, filing a formal complaint in a bid for justice against his alleged tormentors.

"I want them to be punished," Lapunov was quoted by journalist Yelena Milashina as saying in her report for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which first reported both the alleged antigay purge and Lapunov's claims of abuse in Chechnya.

But in the 12 months since he came forward with his story, any form of redress for Lapunov in Russia has appeared increasingly improbable.

Russian investigators opened a probe into Lapunov's allegations but declined to launch a formal criminal investigation, saying they were unable to corroborate his claims. A Russian court in August rejected a challenge to that decision by Lapunov's lawyer.

Not even cautious public support for Lapunov by President Vladimir Putin's own human rights ombudswoman seemed to help.

Lapunov, who declined to be interviewed for this report, has fled Russia due to fears for his safety as his allegations languished in the criminal justice system, according to those who know him.

"The reason the case has stalled, first and foremost, is the lack of political will," Tanya Lokshina, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division for Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL.

Lokshina, who appeared alongside Lapunov at his October 16, 2017, news conference, said he now intends to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

"He wants justice. But clearly, Russian authorities are not going to give it to him," she added.

'We Don't Have Any Gays'

After reports of an antigay purge in Chechnya were published in April 2017, officials in the region reacted with indignation, saying such a campaign would be impossible because there are no such people in the North Caucasus republic.

"We don't have any gays," Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya who rules the region with near absolute power, told HBO in July 2017. "If there are any, take them to Canada. Praise be to God. Take them far from us so we don't have them at home. To purify our blood."

After Lapunov disclosed his story publicly, the Chechen government's information minister accused him of "promoting himself" and conspiring with Novaya Gazeta to fabricate his story to reignite discussion of the issue.

"He kept silent all of that time even though he was in Moscow, and suddenly, when all of these issues came to naught, when everyone understood that there are no gays in the Republic of Chechnya, of course Novaya Gazeta...needed to dream up such a comrade," Dzhambulat Umarov told Russia's independent Dozhd TV.

But while Lapunov did wait six months to take his story public, privately he told people close to him shortly after leaving Chechnya that he had been brutally beaten by police while in captivity in Grozny.

"Maksim immediately told about what happened to him," Lapunov's friend who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity said.

If one were to believe, as officials in Chechnya have alleged, that Lapunov fabricated his account wholesale, then he did so in remarkable detail.

In his testimony to Vladimir Smirnov, his lawyer from the Committee Against Torture, Lapunov said he recalled the first names, faces, and physical descriptions of some of his alleged tormentors.

Lapunov said he can even recall the spot on the cellar wall where investigators would likely find blood stains from his hands following a particularly brutal beating.

He also provided first names and descriptions of other men he said were beaten and tortured in the same cellar for being gay.

One of those men, Lapunov alleges, was an acquaintance whom his captors forced him to lure into a trap by proposing a rendezvous. The sting ended with the detention of the man, who Lapunov says was beaten viciously in his presence.

Lapunov also provided his lawyers with a detailed sketch of what he said was the cellar in which he was held captive -- one that he provided to the Kremlin's human rights ombudswoman, Tatyana Moskalkova, whom he met six weeks before he publicly told his story.

In the fall of 2017, Lapunov spent three weeks in the southern Russian city of Yessentuki, where investigators with the North Caucasus branch of the federal Investigative Committee were examining his claims as part of a preliminary probe, Smirnov said.

"We just sat there and every day tried to convince the investigator to take us to Grozny to examine the scene of the incident," Smirnov said. "Maks personally told him that he's ready to travel there and show him his cellar -- and identify the faces of the police officers who were there."

Lapunov, however, was never taken to the site of his alleged confinement and abuse.

"If the investigation had wanted to do something with him, it would have," Smirnov said.

In March, the investigator in the matter declined to open a criminal case based on Lapunov's claim. That decision was upheld in an August 22 ruling by the Yessentuki City Court.

Investigators say they failed to find facilities in Grozny matching Lapunov's description of the place he was allegedly held captive, according to the court ruling.

The ruling added that investigators could not corroborate Lapunov's allegations based on interviews with numerous potential witnesses, including police officials in Grozny.

Intimidation Claims

Lapunov's lawyers, who are appealing the August ruling, have raised the question in court filings about whether witnesses were pressured by Chechen law enforcement officers, according to records.

Lapunov himself has said that he received threatening calls in the months after he left Chechnya. He also told Moskalkova, whom me met in August 2017, that before his captors released him, he was forced to leave his fingerprints on a handgun and was threatened with retribution if he appealed to authorities.

Lapunov told Moskalkova that he was forced to sign several blank "declaration" forms before he was freed, according to a September 2017 letter Moskalkova sent to a deputy head of the Investigative Committee.

As it turned out, police in Chechnya ultimately did provide federal investigators with a "declaration" allegedly made by Lapunov three days before he says he was released from captivity.

According to case materials reviewed by RFE/RL, Chechen police delivered the declaration in November 2017 to the investigator handling Lapunov's allegations. The document was included with case files related to a missing-person report handled by police in Chechnya after Lapunov disappeared.

In the declaration, dated March 25, 2017, Lapunov purportedly states that he hadn't called his relatives because he was busy preparing for an event he was planning, and that he didn't have time to fix his broken mobile phone.

"During my time in the Republic of Chechnya, no illegal actions were taken against me. I am fine. I will certainly call my mother and relatives when I fix my mobile phone," the declaration, which includes Lapunov's purported signature, states.

That declaration, however, is nowhere to be found in the case file from authorities in the Perm region, who had asked their colleagues in Chechnya for help after people close to Lapunov appealed to the regional human rights ombudswoman, Tatyana Margolina.

Instead, police in Grozny provided a report saying they had reached Lapunov's relative in the Perm region by telephone, and that the relative said Lapunov was back with his family.

"In a further telephone conversation, a citizen introducing himself as Lapunov...explained that he is with his relatives and that he is fine," the document states.

Lapunov's lawyers told the Yessentuki court that there are "well-founded" doubts about the authenticity of the declaration attributed to him, though the court ultimately upheld the investigators' decision not to open a criminal case based on his abuse claims.

'No Evidence Established'

The Russian government also insists there is no need to open a criminal case based on Lapunov's allegations. In July, a senior official with the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office addressed the matter in a hearing before the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva.

​"No evidence was established confirming the illegal detention and confinement of Lapunov, or the infliction of bodily harm against him. In connection with this, the investigator declined to open a criminal case," the official, Valery Maksimenko, told the hearing.

Maksimenko added that "the conclusions of the investigation also correspond fully with the conclusion" of Moskalkova, the Kremlin's human rights ombudswoman.

That claim, however, appeared to be at odds with Moskalkova's previous comments on Lapunov's allegations.

After Novaya Gazeta broke the story about the alleged gay purge in Chechnya, Moskalkova initially said she suspected the reports could be a "provocation." But she has since said she believes Lapunov's case should be investigated.

In May, she expressed disagreement with investigators' decision not to pursue the matter.

"I have my own opinion on this, that there is a basis to open a criminal case," Moskalkova was quoted by Russian state news agencies as saying. "I will appeal to the prosecutor with a request to reconsider this decision."

Moskalkova's office did not respond to a request for comment on whether her position on Lapunov's allegations had changed, as Maksimenko suggested.

'Staggering Risk'

LGBT-Network, a prominent Russian rights group, says it has helped evacuate 130 sexual minorities from Chechnya since April 2017, most of whom have fled Russia altogether.

Western governments, meanwhile, have continued to pressure Russia over its record on LGBT rights and the reports of persecutions of sexual minorities in Chechnya.

In August, 15 members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) slammed a claim by Russian Justice Minister Aleksandr Konovalov to the UN Human Rights Council in May that Russian authorities were unable to find evidence of rights violations against LGBT people in Chechnya.

"Nor were we even able to find representatives of the LGBT community in Chechnya. Please, help us to do this as well -- to find them," Konovalov said.

The 15 OSCE countries hailed Lapunov as "brave" and invoked a mechanism requiring Russia to provide information on specific human rights issues, including that "steps have been taken by the federal authorities to ensure Chechen officials abide by the Russian Federation's OSCE commitments."

Egle Maier, first secretary of Lithuania's representation to international organizations in Vienna, said Russia had responded to the request but "did not address the concerns raised in a substantive manner."

Lokshina of Human Rights Watch said that as "staggering" as the risk was for Lapunov -- an ethnic Russian -- to become "the only victim who actually dared file an official complaint," such a move would be even more dangerous for ethnic Chechens.

Kadyrov in January suggested that a Chechen singer who vanished in Grozny in August 2017 may have been killed by relatives. Rights activists believe the singer, Zelimkhan Bakayev, was detained by law enforcement officers in Grozny on suspicion of being gay and is no longer alive.

Lokshina said that while the "big purge" of gay men in Chechnya appears to have been suspended, the international outcry and inflammatory antigay rhetoric by top Chechen officials in response have heightened the risks for sexual minorities in the region.

"This taboo issue, which was never discussed, suddenly became very high on the agenda and very much part of the public discourse," Lokshina said. "And that in itself led to many people in Chechnya sort of looking out for gay people in their milieu: assessing how people around them dress, comport themselves, spreading rumors."

While gay people in Chechnya previously lived totally in the closet, "at least they could carry on functioning within that suffocating closet," she added.

"Now it's even more dangerous," Lokshina said.

Edited by Michael Scollon; illustrations by Carlos Coelho