May 1, 2019 at 12:00 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Gay Chechen man with HIV seeks asylum in US
The Washington Blade on April 23, 2019, interviewed a gay man from Chechnya who is seeking asylum in the U.S. The man asked the Blade not to publish his name or disclose his identity. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A gay man from Chechnya with HIV who asked the Washington Blade not to reveal his identity was leaving a gay bar in Moscow on May 13, 2018, when a group of six men approached him and attacked him. A video from a nearby surveillance camera that he saved to his cell phone shows one of the men punching him in the face.

“He hit me right in the eye,” the man told the Blade on April 23 during an emotional interview in Dupont Circle. “People were standing right here.”

The man, who spoke to the Blade through a gay Russian friend who acted as an interpreter, said during the interview that doctors at a hospital and at a private eye clinic to where he was brought refused to treat him because of his HIV status. The man told the Blade he eventually “bumped into” an Armenian plastic surgeon who placed a titanium mesh around his injured eye ball a month after the attack.

“He caught up with me in the corridors of the hospital and he said what I see tells me that you absolutely need surgery and I can do it for you,” said the man. “He did it.”

The man had been living in Moscow for more than a year when the men attacked him. He flew to Miami on Nov. 10, 2018, and has been living in New York since last December.

“For the longest time, I didn’t want to move to the U.S. because I thought back in Russia I could lay low and disappear from society’s life and somehow the threat to my persona would evaporate overtime,” said the man. “That is why I moved from Chechnya to Moscow and I started experiencing how difficult it is to live outside of your own society.”

Chechnya ‘not safe for gay people’

Chechnya is a predominantly Muslim, semi-autonomous Russian republic in the North Caucasus.

Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper, in 2017 reported Chechen authorities had arrested more than 100 men because of their sexual orientation. The Russian LGBT Network, a Russian advocacy group, in January said at least two people have been killed and upwards of 40 people have been detained in the latest anti-LGBTI crackdown in Chechnya that began shortly after the man with whom the Blade spoke arrived in the U.S.

A report the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a Vienna-based group of which the U.S. is a member, released late last year documents extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses against LGBTI Chechens. President Trump has not publicly condemned the crackdown, but the State Department in January described the reports over additional arrests and deaths as “deeply disturbing.”

The man with whom the Blade spoke said he “stopped going to Chechnya” two years ago because he had begun to receive death threats.

He said he closed his business in Grozny, the Chechen capital. The man added the rest of his family remains in Chechnya.

“It’s not safe for gay people,” he said. “In Chechen society, the topic of sex in general is a taboo. Therefore gay people in Chechen society are never accepted and completely rejected.”

“There are countries in this world where gay people are persecuted, but in these countries’ case the society admits the fact that they have gay people amongst them,” added the man. “Chechnya is the only place on earth that completely rejects the whole fact of the possible existence of gay people.”

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a close Kremlin ally who is among the Chechen officials sanctioned by the U.S., in 2017 said during an interview with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” his republic doesn’t “have any gays.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has either downplayed or dismissed the reports about the anti-LGBTI crackdown in Chechnya.

The Kremlin’s LGBTI rights record, which includes a 2013 law that bans so-called gay propaganda to minors, and Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, continue to spark criticism around the world. The man with whom the Blade spoke said he felt targeted in Moscow because he is gay and Chechen.

“The problem is the threat to life is not just inside Chechnya,” he said. “It travels all over the Russian Federation and beyond into other countries of the world where the Chechen diaspora exists.”

The man with whom the Blade spoke said he was afraid to report any threats he received to the police because it would be “like committing suicide for us.” He also said he was afraid to reach out to LGBTI activists in Moscow and elsewhere, in part, because he was worried other Chechens would learn about him.

“We Chechens are afraid of other Chechens the most,” the man said.

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The gay man from Chechnya with HIV with whom the Washington Blade spoke in D.C. on April 23, 2019, currently lives in New York. (Photo by Daniel Schwen; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The man said a man in New York who is associated with RUSA LGBT, a group of LGBTI Russian speakers and their supporters, began to send “uncontrolled threats” to him after he criticized him for an “offensive and racist” Facebook post that he also described as xenophobic.

He said RUSA LGBT banned him from their event at a gay bar in Manhattan and sent him a cease and desist letter, which he claims is not valid, on April 12 that he showed to the Blade. Yelena Goltzman, founder and co-president of RUSA LGBT, in a lengthy statement denied the man’s allegations.

“The cease and desist letter was, in fact, sent to one of the people in the conflict on the advice of the attorney and the police who were called to the scene after his fourth unprovoked and unwelcomed visit to the workplace of RUSA LGBT’s co-president and as a consequence of his unrelenting harassment on social media,” Goltzman told the Blade on Tuesday.

Goltzman said Facebook “took down his posts about RUSA LGBT and warned him of further consequences.”

“Despite this, he continues to slander and harass RUSA LGBT leaders,” she said. “Unfortunately, we see the information he provided to you may further advance his harassment and slander against our group.”

Goltzman on Wednesday in a follow-up text message to the Blade said the man who the asylum seeker has accused of harassing him “is not a volunteer or a leader of RUSA LGBT and does not represent RUSA LGBT in any way.” The man with whom the Blade spoke on April 23 continues to dispute RUSA LGBT’s claims against him.

In the meantime, his asylum interview took place on Monday in New York. The man told the Blade he hopes “to realize my dream of being free and equal among equals, a worthy citizen and partner” if he were to receive asylum in the U.S.

“I know that in this country I can do this,” he said. “I hope that in the United States law, order and society will not allow any discrimination or threats against me from anyone, regardless of their position in society.”

“I want to start a new life in which there will be no place for xenophobia, transphobia, HIV stigma, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism from anyone,” added the man.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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