Authorities in Chechnya have reportedly been rounding up more than 100 men suspected of being gay, Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and human rights activists claimed. At least three men have been killed in the roundup.
The report, citing Russian federal law enforcement officials, alleged that well-known local television personalities and religious figures were detained "in connection with their nontraditional sexual orientation, or suspicion of such". According to The New York Times, men aged between 16 and 50 have disappeared over the last week.
The newspaper's report was written by an author regarded as a leading authority on the Russian republic, The Guardian reported.
Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, vehemently denied the allegations, claiming there are no gay people in Chechnya.
Alvi Karimov, a spokesperson for Kadyrov, called the report "absolute lies and disinformation" and reiterated Kadyrov's claim that gay people do not live in the republic.
"You cannot detain and persecute people who simply do not exist in the republic," he told Interfax news agency. "If there were such people in Chechnya, the law enforcement organs wouldn't need to have anything to do with them because their relatives would send them somewhere from which there is no returning."
A spokesman for Chechnya's interior ministry dismissed the report as "an April fool's joke" to the Russian newspaper RBC.
The roundup was reportedly launched after a Moscow-based gay rights group, GayRussia.ru, applied for permits to stage gay pride parades in four cities in Russia's Northern Caucasus region, which includes Chechnya.
The Times reported that the group was not focused on the predominantly Muslim area, but rather was collecting the inevitable denials from provincial cities around Russia to build a case about gay rights and freedom of assembly with the European Court of Human Rights.
While the group had not applied for a permit in Chechnya, it nevertheless prompted an anti-gay counterdemonstration, the Times reported. "In Chechnya, the command was given for a 'prophylactic sweep' and it went as far as real murders," Novaya Gazeta claimed.
To find the gay men, authorities reportedly posed as men looking for dates on social networking sites.
Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, Russia project director for the International Crisis Group, told The Guardian that she has received information that supports the claims. "I've heard about it happening in Grozny [the Chechen capital], outside Grozny, and among people of very different ages and professions," she said.
Sokirianskaia noted that much of the information has arrived second or third hand and that the organisation does not have fully verifiable cases. "It's next to impossible to set information from the victims or their families, but the number of signals I'm receiving from different people makes it hard not to believe detentions and violence are indeed happening."
Gay men have now started deleting their online accounts or fleeing the region, the Times reported. Novaya Gazeta also published contact information to help men who want to leave Chechnya for relatively more tolerant parts of Russia.