Chechnya LGBT community risk death but find little help from outside

John Sparks, Moscow Correspondent

He has been living in the shadows in an unfamiliar world - a young man in thread-bare clothes now on the run in Western Europe.

He calls himself Arthur, although that is not his real name and we could tell by the way he constantly scanned his surroundings that he was scared. The one thing that Arthur is sure of is that he cannot return home - because he is Chechen and he is gay.

"The most difficult thing that could happen to a person is to be gay in Chechnya. You can be easily killed and no one would be punished - ever. Even your relatives would be happy," he told me.

Arthur, who is in his late 20s, was forced to hide his sexuality in Chechnya - a region in southern Russia which is both conservative and predominantly Muslim. There were those who knew the truth however, like the police, who regularly sought bribes from members of the gay community. Pay the money, Arthur said, and officers looked the other way.

But something changed in Chechnya in December, he said. The police began to round up gay men and imprison them in an operation that was described by activists and human rights groups as an "anti-gay purge".

The regional police chief turned up with some of his men at Arthur's home but he was out at the time.

"I was saved by just a few minutes.

"But the policemen called (my telephone) and told me to come back to the house. My relatives also asked me to come back to the house.

"(The police chief) said I should stand in front of him because I have betrayed him personally, because I am gay, a gay Chechen. I think he also wanted to get information from me about other friends.

"I understood the situation very well. I didn't come back."

He was presented with a terrifying dilemma. The officer in charge threatened to take away one of his family members until the young Chechen returned, but Arthur decided to flee. Four months on, it is a decision that he is still struggling with.

"I was selfish because I decided to save my own life and I feel sorry about it now because if they had killed me everything would be over.

"Now I am going through hard times.

"I am trying to hold it all together."

Arthur is not alone. Dozens of men have fled from Chechnya in the past few months, including Maxim who told Sky News that he was electrocuted and beaten over the course of two weeks in a Chechen prison.

He said that prison officers gave metal bars to inmates in his crowded cell and singled out other prisoners for beatings, adding that upon his release, the police told his family that he was gay. Maxim said his relatives did not believe the police - but Arthur tells a different story. "My relatives are trying to find me," he said, "so they can avenge the family's honour."

There is a small group of LGBT activists in Russia trying to help, led by an overworked man called Igor Kochetkov. Together, they have received more than 90 calls over the past few months from desperate people looking for help. Their immediate priority is to keep them secure until they can find a way to get them out of the country.

"Nowhere is safe.

"We know of cases when relatives find family members in Moscow or other parts of Russia and they force them back to Chechnya and kill them there - or beat them until they are almost dead."

But Mr Kochetkov and his team have encountered a serious problem. While western leaders issue critical statements, singling out the Chechen authorities for their treatment of gay men, their embassies have done little to help in terms of providing emergency visas for those in hiding.

"First they ask: 'How can we help you?' When we say: 'You could help these people with visas', they say: 'Well, how else can we help?' This is a very strange and dangerous situation because these people cannot wait here forever for a visa to be granted or not.

Mr Kochetkov and his team have been to more than 20 embassies but they have received little in the way of assistance.

Maxim, who has been hiding in a Moscow suburb for the past three weeks, told me that France has already turned down his application for asylum.

He said: "When we got to Moscow, local human rights activists protected me but I can't say things are easy because they don't have enough money and there are a lot us.

"There's no way back but European countries are in no hurry to grant visas."

When I told him that the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and others leaders, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have expressed their deep concern, this exhausted-looking refugee simply said: "I hear words of support but I haven't received any help."

Learn more about Russia's LGBT Network here .

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