European Court finds Russia failed to adequately investigate the abduction and torture of gay man by Chechen police, confirming culture of impunity in the republic
CW: enforced disappearance; torture
On 12 September, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) delivered its judgment in Lapunov v Russia, a case concerning the abduction and torture of a gay man in Chechnya during an anti-LGBT purge. The ECtHR confirmed the applicant had been subjected to torture as a result of discrimination based on his sexuality, with the authorities then failing to investigate the allegations made against Chechen security services. The ECtHR found violations of Articles 3, 5 and 14 of the European Conventions of Human Rights (ECHR).
EHRAC and Human Rights Watch had filed a joint Third Party Intervention (TPI) in the case in 2020, arguing that it should be considered in the light of the persistent and systematic failure of the Russian authorities to conduct effective investigations into serious human rights violations in Chechnya, including torture and enforced disappearances, giving rise to a climate of impunity. In its judgment, the Court confirmed that it “recognises that the systemic problem [the failure to investigate] extends not only to cases of disappearances, but more generally to the ineffectiveness of investigations in Chechnya carried out in respect of complaints under [ECHR] Articles 2 [the Right to Life] and 3 [the Prohibition of Torture]… involving allegations against State agents.”
“The crime of enforced disappearance has been used in Chechnya to terrorise the population and create a climate of fear for over twenty years. The strategic litigation supported by EHRAC and our partners has resulted in countless positive judgments. However, as this case demonstrates, the Chechen authorities’ failure to address this appalling practice enables and encourages serious human rights violations against an ever-widening circle of victims. Enforced disappearance continues to exert its toll on families and communities, with wider consequences for the enjoyment of rights.”
Jess Gavron, Co-Director and Head of Legal, EHRAC
Maksim Lapunov, a gay man, was abducted by state security forces in Grozny, Chechnya, in March 2017 during a purge of the LGBT community in which victims were subject to unlawful detention, torture and extrajudicial killing. He was detained without charge, in appalling conditions, for almost two weeks, during which he was tortured, physically threatened and subjected repeatedly to homophobic abuse. Prior to his release, he was forced to detail his sexual encounters, an account which was filmed by his interrogators. He was threatened with reprisals if he filed a future complaint.
It was over a week before officials sought to note Mr Lapunov’s detention in official records, and they only did so after his sister had complained to police.
Before and during his detention, Mr Lapunov came into contact with other gay men who had been or were being held in unrecorded detention. He witnessed the torture of one detainee. Two of the gay men he came into contact with have subsequently been presumed murdered by Chechen state security.
The Russian Investigative Committee in the North Caucasus Region was ordered to review the case after Mr Lapunov’s release, but there were multiple failures in the investigation, including the involvement of the Chechen police (who were at the centre of the allegations), considerable delays, loss of key evidence, and a failure to examine the area of the building where Mr Lapunov was allegedly held.
Mr Lapunov now lives abroad, having fled Chechnya for his own safety.
EHRAC was one of a number of organisations to intervene in this case.
With Human Rights Watch, we requested permission to submit a TPI based on our experience of litigating over 100 cases before the ECtHR concerning enforced disappearances in Chechnya, and the Chechen authorities’ ongoing failure to punish those responsible for these crimes, resulting in a climate of impunity.
In our joint TPI, we drew links between this climate of impunity and the anti-LGBT purges that were perpetrated in Chechnya in 2017 and 2019, noting that the purges did not happen in a vacuum but followed two decades of serious human rights violations in Chechnya, for which there has been no accountability.
We drew on previous ECtHR judgments in relation to enforced disappearances and other grave human rights violations in Chechnya, and to the hundreds of cases that remain under the supervision of the Committee of Ministers. We referred specifically to the judgment in Aslakhanova and Others v. Russia (nos. 2944/06 and 4 others, 18 December 2012), in which the Court had found a systemic failure to investigate enforced disappearances and had provided clear guidance on urgent measures to be taken. As the ECtHR noted in this judgment, “At the time of the submissions, those measures had not yet been taken.”
We also noted that attempts by individuals in Chechnya to highlight the serious human rights violations involved, including on social media, had led to reprisals: as the ECtHR noted “the authorities… subjected (the complainants) to public humiliation, forcing (them) to publicly apologise to the Chechen leadership for their allegedly false statements and to recant their actions. The Chechen authorities had also systematically targeted human rights defenders, forcing them out of Chechnya, and thus further denying victims access to a remedy.”
The targeting of journalists and human rights defenders raising awareness of violations against the LGBTQI+ community
The targeting of the LGBTQI+ community in Chechnya was first brought to international attention by the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, in April 2017. Following the publication of its investigation into the anti-LGBT+ purges in February and March 2017, religious leaders in Chechnya called for ‘retribution’ against Novaya Gazeta and its employees, accusing them of ‘slander’ and labelling them ‘enemies’ of the Chechen ‘faith and motherland’. Further threats followed, and the author of the article, Elena Milashina, had to leave the country for her safety. The authorities repeatedly refused to open a criminal case into the threats.
EHRAC has taken the journalists’ case to the ECtHR, arguing that the Russian authorities’ failure to protect Elena Milashina and her colleagues, and the violation of their freedom of expression resulting from the threats, breached the ECHR. The case is a stark example of the culture of impunity that exists in Chechnya for threats and attacks against journalists and human rights defenders, which has made it impossible to investigate and speak freely on human rights abuses without fear of violence and retribution. The case is currently awaiting judgment.