Gay men are currently being arrested and killed in a terrifying state-sponsored purge in Chechnya, according to emerging reports.
According to Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, over 100 men aged 16-50 have been detained by local authorities in the Russian caucus in recent weeks.
Three men are known to have been killed, though the paper estimates the real figure to be higher.
The crackdown is reported to have begun after a Russian gay rights group applied for permits to stage gay pride parades in Russia’s North Caucasus region, of which Chechnya is a part.
Authorities have reportedly been using social media messages to track and entrap victims, who are unlikely to be out in a region where homosexuals are faced with widespread persecution and violence.
Men already detained are said to include leading religious figures as well as two well-known Chechen TV personalities.
The legal status of homosexuality in the predominantly Muslim region of Chechnya is unclear, but authorities have historically turned a blind eye to anti-gay violence and murder, while Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has previously said he approves of honour killings.
While the mass detentions have reportedly been confirmed by Chechnya’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and the region’s Prosecutor’s Office, a spokesperson for Kadyrov has denied the reports, accusing the article spreading “absolute lies and disinformation.”
Spokesperson Alvi Karimov denied that gay men existed at all in Chechnya, before adding that if they did, they would have already been killed by their families.
“You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” he told news agency Interfax.
“If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them, as their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.”
Despite the official denial, Ekaterina L. Sokiryanskaya, a Russia project coordinator for the International Crisis Group says she has received “numerous, numerous signals,” about the purge.
“It came from too many sources not to be true,” she told The New York Times.
Activists believe the situation for gay men on the ground is desperate, particularly given the difficulty in communicating with the remote region.
“Even delivering the information is very difficult,” Ms. Sokiryanskaya, said. “They are just small islands, isolated.”