More than 100 gay men have vanished from the streets of Chechnya and several may have been killed, Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta has reported.
The Moscow-based newspaper – known for its investigative reporting – said it had confirmed rumours which had been swirling for a week about mass round-ups, detention and violence against gay men in the southern Russian territory.
The crackdown appears to include vigilante violence and a wave of arrests – at least three people have been killed so far, the paper reported.
One Chechen from the capital of Grozny told SBS he was having trouble sleeping and was scared for his life.
“People disappear without a trace,” the gay 28-year-old said.
“If people find out someone is gay – since it is not allowed in the Caucasus and is tangled in shame – they are simply killed and the relatives stay silent,” he said.
Sometimes the violence came at the hands of friends, he said, and it was difficult to know who to trust.
“I just want to leave Chechnya myself – all relationships have to be conducted in secret.”
Novaya Gazeta said that an “unprecedented” number of government, legal and intelligence sources had confirmed that an official crackdown on LGBT+ individuals was underway in Chechnya, a territory ruled by Vladimir Putin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov.
But a spokesperson for Mr Kadyrov blasted the newspaper in a phone call with Russian news agency Interfax.
“You cannot detain and oppress someone who simply does not exist in the republic,” Mr Karimov said.
Human Rights Watch has reported concerns over authorities turning a blind eye towards violence and murders targeted against LGBT+ individuals – a phenomena Mr Karimov appeared to allude to in his statement to 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,” he told the agency.
Russian LGBT+ activist Mikhail Tumasov said on social media that he was outraged by the reaction of officials in Chechnya.
“No national and/or religious traditions and norms can justify kidnapping or killing of a human being,” he said.
“Any references to 'traditions' to justify kidnappings and killings are amoral and criminal.”
Novaya Gazeta reported that men had been arrested from across the territory, not just in the capital of Grozny.
Detained men included two well-known broadcasters and some close to religious leaders in the Islamic territory, the paper reported.
The report characterised the crackdown as a ‘preventative’ measure after LGBT+ activists filed for permission to hold several gay pride events in early March.
News of those applications sparked protests, homophobic threats on social media, and calls for LGBT+ individuals to be ‘cleansed’ from the country.
Mr Tumasov said that activists in Russia were working to confirm the details of vulnerable individuals in Chechnya and help get them out of the territory.
"People's lives are endangered and the only way to help is the evacuation," he said.
Novaya Gazeta is known for its criticism of the Kremlin and the Russian establishment.
Since 2001, several of its journalists have been killed.