LGBT, Terrified for Their Lives in Russia, and Desperate for Asylum
The Russian-based organization Stimul offers safe places to live and asylum advocacy for LGBT people fleeing life-threatening situations in homophobic Central Asian countries.
When he was 15, his family found out that Ibrahim (not his real name) was gay.
In a written testimony, the now 20-year-old Chechen recalled to The Daily Beast that from that moment on, local mullahs and “old wives” (faith healers and local women reputed to be witches) “tried to ‘treat’ me for my homosexuality.”
He recalled these “treatments” in graphic detail. “Their abhorrent actions—bloodletting (when the skin is broken off with the help of a medical jar], herbs (after which I had hallucinations, nausea, stomach pains), strong pressure on the painful points of the body, and what was even more terrible—the electric shocks onto the penis. There were also some ‘spells’ or nashidas (though to no effect). These all exhausted me. It went on and off for months till I turned 18.”
Ibrahim is all right, for now, having escaped Chechnya. He is living under the care of Stimul, a Russian LGBT organization staffed by six activists that, among its other work, arranges safe housing and advice and advocacy in large Russian cities for vulnerable LGBT people seeking asylum from Central Asian countries like Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, as well as Chechnya, where homosexuality is not only against the law—except in Tajikistan—but where LGBT people are also viciously persecuted.
In April last year, international outrage followed reports that hundreds of gay men had been detained and tortured, and some killed, by Chechen authorities.
Ultimately, Stimul aims to successfully place LGBT people facing persecution like Ibrahim seeking asylum in European countries, the U.S., and Canada.
After he turned 18, Ibrahim said his parents, aunts, and other relatives got used to him being gay “and began to treat me lighter, accepted, so to say. But my visits to the ‘healers’ didn’t end. Not as often, but I visited them, because my parents still hoped that homosexuality would pass, or in other words, ‘heal.’”
He faced even graver problems when his ex-boyfriend, a supporter of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, told Ibrahim that he was on the list of gay men the authorities were looking for.
“I learned about this list later, when information appeared that Kadyrov’s supporters and the local police were looking for gays in Chechnya, according to compiled lists.” If the men were found, Ibrahim heard, they were detained, kept in secret prisons, and tortured.
Those gay men were told by their captors about other gay men, and then given back to relatives, “if they hadn’t already tortured them to death. After that, there is no information about the guys: whether they are alive or not. Most likely, their relatives secretly killed them (‘murders of honor’) and forgot about them once and for all.
“I did not have time to ask my boyfriend any questions. He turned his phone off and disappeared. After this call, I realized that he changed his number.”
Ibrahim packed what he could and fled from Grozny, turning to help from the Russian LGBT Network, where there was a program to help LGBT people fleeing Chechnya. (That organization and the Moscow LGBT Community Center, as reported by Masha Gessen in The New Yorker, has saved the lives of more than 100 Chechen gay men.) Then Ibrahim found Stimul.
The organization, which depends on donations, was founded in 2015 as a general LGBT advice and advocacy organization. Since June 2017, it has also provided safe shelter and legal help and assistance to those seeking safety in Russia, and then asylum elsewhere.
Yuri Guaiana, senior campaigns manager of the international LGBT advocacy organization All Out, told The Daily Beast LGBT that people from Central Asia and Chechnya were facing “a terrible situation, the level of discrimination and persecution is so high.”
Two of Stimul’s clients are now safe in European countries, and three are awaiting final approval of documentation. Andrei Petrov, the head of Stimul, and Anton Ryzhov, a lawyer for the organization who translated Petrov’s words, said that about 20 people had contacted Stimul for help since last summer. The numbers of those seeking asylum from such countries are increasing, the men said.
Russia itself is a notably unsafe place for LGBT people; hate crimes against LGBT people have doubled there in the last five years. As reported this week, anti-gay and racist soccer chants have increased in the run-up to the World Cup, which Russia is hosting.
“We don’t have any governmental support,” said Petrov of Stimul’s work. “As for the level of dangers, as for the level of threats, we think it’s the same as for any NGO is Russia, not just for an LGBT organization, but human rights defenders. We are under this constant threat, but luckily no serious attacks have been made on us.
“The attitude of society to LGBT people and these cases is still very homophobic. But where once there were no LGBT organizations, now there are three. That’s positive, as is the support we get from other human rights organizations here.”
Guaiana called the activists of Stimul “extremely brave.”
The organization connects its clients with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the embassies of welcoming European countries.
“The most surprising, shocking things are the stories about torture, and forced ‘cures’ of homosexuality,” said Petrov. “It is not like how things are in civilized countries, and even for us in Russia it is rather shocking.”
One recent application was from a young man from Tajikistan. After his parents discovered he was gay, they invited a representative from the local mosque to “chant some spells” over their son. The young man was told to spend one month in a closed room with no communication with anyone else. He got out.
Another young woman who contacted Stimul said she was a lesbian who had been forcibly married to a young man. “Now she’s constantly beaten by him and raped by him, and she is still in such a marriage. We are trying to help her somehow,” said Petrov.
Ryzhov worked in Chechnya for more than seven years as a human rights advocate, not dealing with LGBT cases specifically but more generally in abduction and torture cases involving law enforcement agencies. The state authorities do not investigate allegations of brutality, and people are too afraid to report such allegations to them, he told The Daily Beast.
The highly publicized LGBT persecution last year in Chechnya has now receded, Ryzhov said, although LGBT people remain under “constant threat” there. The Chechen authorities launch “waves of propaganda” aimed at groups as disparate as LGBT people, drug users, alcoholics, and members of ISIS, he added—groups that for very different reasons are seen as “dangerous and inappropriate, and must be eliminated physically or by some other means.”
In May 2017, Guaiana was arrested in Moscow along with four other activists. They were attempting to hand in a 2 million-signature petition asking the Russian authorities to investigate what had happened in Chechnya.
Asked if any of the countries Stimul had clients from were as bad as Chechnya for LGBT people, Petrov replied, “Uzbekistan. There, LGBT people are arrested and put in prison. The police do the same kinds of raids and campaigns. There is physical violence inside prisons too.”
The Moscow Times reported that acting Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov told the UN Human Rights Council in mid-May, “The investigations that we carried out [...] did not confirm evidence of rights’ violations, nor were we even able to find representatives of the LGBT community in Chechnya... Please, help us do this and find them.”
Konovalov said accusations of discrimination in Russia were either “lacking concrete evidence” or “not at all related to their [victims’] political beliefs, sexual orientation, religious views and so on.”
Petrov said the situation for Stimul’s clients was not getting better in any of the Central Asian countries it deals with.
“We can’t see any positive changes, we don’t see any light in such attitudes to LGBT people in these countries,” said Petrov. “The only positive thing is that these applicants have taken the decision to fight for their lives. They couldn’t hide themselves, so they decided to try to protect their rights. To even go to human rights defenders, it takes a huge courage to talk, to tell your story. Sometimes you need to lodge official documents with embassies, or the criminal law authorities.”
When the applicants reach Stimul, some need urgent psychological help depending on what they have endured. “Some are in constant stress,” said Petrov. “You continue to be in constant threat. Russia can expel you back to your native country.”
He cited the case of Ali Feruz, a gay journalist for Novaya Gazeta whom the Moscow authorities wished to deport back to Uzbekistan but who eventually found sanctuary in Germany, thanks to the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights.
“Russia is not a safe place for these people,” said Petrov. “It is an intermediate place to stay before going to a safer place in Europe. These LGBT people are in life-threatening situations. Life in Russia isn’t safe for them. LGBT people are in constant danger here, and we try to find them safe, secret housing while waiting for asylum in a safer country.”
Ibrahim, from Chechnya, told The Daily Beast that Stimul had so far helped him acquire a foreign passport.
“I really hope that they will help me to leave Russia, otherwise it will be literally the end of me,” he told The Daily Beast. “If I’m on Kadyrov’s supporters’ lists, sooner or later they’ll find me. Kadyrov’s supporters may not kill me, but they might hurt permanently both my life and health forever—that’s no problem for them. I have no other way or chance to be saved. It is either freedom and life—or them, Kadyrov’s supporters.”
David (name has been changed): ‘I want to leave and to not be afraid anymore, to not hide and just live’
My name is David, I’m 20 years old, I’m gay, from Ossetia. I constantly hid my orientation: In the Caucasus they kill for it, so I had to pretend I was “straight.”
On the night of Sept. 25 or 26, 2016, I was attacked by three guys in the city where I was studying at university.
I was beaten all night, threatened to be killed or sold into slavery. After three to four hours of beating, when there were no places on my head and body left to beat, they agreed to let me go if I gave them my money, phone, and my laptop. In the morning they let me go, taking my sneakers and jacket from me.
I barely made it to a friend and asked for permission to live with him. He immediately agreed and began to persuade me to go to the police or at least to a hospital. I was afraid, so for two days I was just lying at home.
On the third day he finally persuaded me to go to the hospital. Somehow we agreed with the doctor not to inform the police.
After the beatings were recorded, I was prescribed medications and I went again to my friend. I did not say anything to my relatives and family. Almost nobody knew about this.
For two months I lived with my friend and did not go out, because I was afraid that they would see me again and attack again. Even after that, I shuddered with fear when a car was passing by, resembling the one that they had.
In December, my friend said that he had a friend in the police and persuaded me to file a report. I agreed. I thought it would all go as quickly as possible and anonymously. But it was then that the whole nightmare began. The investigation dragged on for six months. My orientation was known to all police officers, and later the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
I experienced constant mockery and fear. For interrogations, I always came and left with an escort. There were calls and messages from relatives of those guys who beat me up and robbed me, first with requests to withdraw the report, later with threats.
To be honest, I tried several times to withdraw the report, but each time I was either told that it was not allowed or dissuaded under other pretexts. I went outside as rarely as possible. I also missed classes at the university.
The investigation ended at the end of April 2017. In early May, the court hearings began. I came to the first hearing and immediately got threatened. The brother of one of the accused tried to beat me right in the courtroom. There was no reaction from the officers of the court. After the hearing, the investigator sent police officers to bring me to the ministry, to him. It was not safe to leave that place alone and go home.
I realized that I could no longer live in constant fear for my life. At any time, my relatives could learn about my orientation, so I turned to the Russian LGBT Network for help. They helped me to move to St. Petersburg and helped with accommodation and food.
In July, my relatives learned about my case and my orientation. My uncle works for the police. He tried to look for me. He thought that I was still in the Caucasus. My cousin who worked in the protection of the president of South Ossetia has strong connections. He was looking for me in St. Petersburg, but at that time I had already moved to another city.
I limited my communication with everyone except my mother. She and my two younger brothers are the only ones who accepted me. All my other relatives want me dead, and put pressure on my mother. Now everyone thinks that I’m no longer in Russia.
My mother told them that I went to Europe. If my relatives find out that I’m in Russia, they’ll start looking for me again. Besides my relatives, the relatives of these three guys are looking for me, too. At the end of December, I was asked to leave the shelter. Since mid-December, Stimul has helped me with housing. For about six months I have wanted to leave, but because of problems with documents and finances I still have not succeeded.
I want to leave and to not be afraid anymore, to not hide and just live. Now I’m waiting for a visa to one of the European countries, and I hope that with the help of Stimul I will leave Russia.
Amir (citizen of Uzbekistan; not his real name): ‘He knew that he could be beaten or even killed if others found out he was gay’
Stimul writes: On Nov. 17, 2017, Amir, 23, was referred to Stimul by employees of the UNHCR and the Civic Assistance Committee (a nonprofit which helps refugees and forced migrants).
According to the Civic Assistance lawyer, Amir was detained at border control when he tried to cross the Russian border to go to Europe, where his partner was waiting for him.
Amir does not have a so-called sticker (exit visa) or a Schengen visa in his passport, and therefore was detained by Russian border guards.
From the border zone he was taken to the operational department of the Border Service of the Russian Federal Security Service and fined under article 18.1 of the Administrative Code (violation of the state border regime of the Russian Federation).
Amir was born in the region of Samarkand. He has two brothers and a sister. He has self-identified as gay since the age of 14. Because of pressure from his brothers, he was forced to date a girl for six years (in spite of his sexual orientation), so that the brothers would not suspect him of homosexuality.
In Amir’s family and among friends, when the topic of homosexuality was raised, people made it clear to him that they would take any steps, including murder, if they learned he was gay. According to Amir: “When we watched TV with my brothers and my friends, if we were talking about gays, they said that all gays should be killed.”
His friends brutally beat a neighbor just because they suspected him of homosexuality. Therefore, Amir was forced to “stay in the closet.”
One day a friend told him to be careful and watch his friends because they began to suspect him of homosexuality. After that Amir started to think about leaving for Russia, as he hoped to get lost there. Every day was a tragedy for him: He knew that he could be beaten or even killed if others found out he was gay.
On Oct. 4, 2015, Amir left Uzbekistan for Moscow. But in Moscow he had to live with his uncle and gained no freedom. A month later, a friend invited him to Khabarovsk and gave him work and shelter. However, in Khabarovsk, Amir remained under the control of his family and brother, who came after Amir and wanted to control the life of his younger brother.
In August 2017, Amir met a Frenchman on a dating site. One day, his brother saw Amir talking to his new acquaintance on a video call, took his phone away from him, and brutally beat him.
He also said that if it was confirmed that Amir was gay, he would kill him. After this incident, the new French friend persuaded Amir that he needed to go to Europe and seek asylum. Amir contacted LGBT organizations in Russia and Ukraine, where he was told that he could go to Europe via Ukraine (in fact, the visa-free short-term entry to EU countries from Ukraine is only allowed for citizens of Ukraine).
Amir contacted a French LGBT organization with a request for help and they replied that they would help him.
On Nov. 11, Amir left Khabarovsk, and on Nov. 13 he tried to get into the transit international zone in Moscow with the goal of traveling to Ukraine without having a “sticker” (exit visa of Uzbekistan) or a Schengen visa in his passport.
At the border control, Amir was detained by the Border Service of the FSB of Russia and fined 2,000 rubles for violating the state border regime of the Russian Federation. During detention, Amir was able to call the duty officer of UNHCR, who passed the information to the Civic Assistance migration lawyer.
The lawyer was able to make an agreement with the duty officers of the border control department to only impose a fine on Amir without deporting him from Russia.
After drawing up the protocol and obtaining a decision to hold him accountable, Amir was released and took a taxi to the Russian-Ukrainian border. Amir told the Russian border officers about his story and was released from the territory of Russia.
However, the Ukrainian border officers refused to let Amir into the country, made a note in the passport on the prohibition of entry to Ukraine, and sent him back to Russia.
Russian border officers refused to let Amir into Russia. Amir was again detained by border officers, he again contacted the duty officer of UNHCR, and the Civic Assistance migration lawyer managed to get permission for Amir to return to Russia.
After Amir returned to Moscow, Civic Assistance contacted Stimul with a request for assistance in providing temporary housing for him. Since Nov. 17, Amir has been under the care of our organization.
After conducting interviews and checking the facts to confirm the existence of a real danger to the life and health of Amir, we came to the conclusion that Amir needed the fastest evacuation from Russia.
On Feb. 9 he received a migration visa to Europe. Due to the absence of the so-called sticker (an Uzbek exit visa) in Amir’s passport, Stimul gave Amir technical assistance in crossing the Russian border and one of our employees accompanied Amir to Europe.
On Feb. 12, 2018, Amir left Russia and arrived in Europe, where he is now under the care of a French LGBT organization and his friend.