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article imageGay Chechen dreams of 'normal life' after escape to France

By Joris FIORITI (AFP)     Jun 2, 2017 in World

"I always wondered what it was like to be happy," says Azmad, sitting in a Paris hotel room after fleeing a vicious wave of persecution against gay men in his native Chechnya.

His years of living in fear had morphed into outright terror after a series of gruesome deaths of suspected homosexuals in recent months, prompting him to abandon his family and homeland.

After escaping to Moscow, Azmad has become the first Chechen to benefit from a French association's efforts to secure emergency humanitarian visas for gay Chechens in fear for their lives.

While gay rights are advancing in many parts of the world, homosexuality has long been taboo in the Muslim-majority region.

Homophobia there has now taken a bloody turn. Russian media reports that the authorities have recently arrested dozens of gay men in Grozny and other parts of the country, with their relatives often told to kill them to "cleanse their honour".

"If it becomes known, you are in danger, and so are those close to you. People are killed over rumours there," says 26-year-old Azmad, using a pseudonym and wearing sunglasses, while accepting to be filmed only if his face is not shown.

After arriving in France on Monday, he now plans to apply for asylum in order to finally build a "normal" life.

"At home, I didn't know calm and tranquility."

- The killings begin -

Already grappling with a grim reality of constant fear and precautions, Chechen gays saw their lives descend into nightmare last winter.

They were already living within a tightly controlled subculture where each encounter with someone new had to be vetted by as many mutual friends as possible.

"But very few take the risk" of meeting with others, says Azmad, who was a student but also worked in a shop.

And the crackdown was just beginning.

Azmad remembers a young man who was found naked and tied up after being raped and killed.

"Gradually, gay people began to disappear," he says. "It was systematic."

The Chechen police were seizing telephones and computers to find photos of suspected homosexuals, easily locating victims in a small LGBT community where everyone knows each other, Azmad says.

According to Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, over 100 homosexuals have recently been arrested in the Russian republic.

At least two people were killed by relatives and a third died after being tortured, it said.

Amnesty International said Friday that it had turned over a petition with 650,000 signatures to the Russian Embassy in Paris, demanding that "light be shed on the abuses" in Chechnya.

And during a visit to Paris by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, President Emmanuel Macron said France would be "vigilant" after Putin said he had taken measures to establish the truth of the claims.

Nonetheless, Russian and Chechen officials have broadly rejected the accounts, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying last week that there were "no facts" in the reports of persecution.

- Time to flee -

Azmad said he tried to be "very discreet", refusing to go out with other Chechens, for example.

But his photo was discovered on a mobile phone, leading to a first round of questioning, brief and non-violent.

But he knew he had been lucky, after hearing the stories of others who had been tortured.

Indeed, several days later, police came looking again for Azmad, taking his phone where his "entire life" was stored and making him unlock it.

After that ordeal, he knew it was time to flee.

"I escaped because I understood that I would not manage to get through it," he says. "It was going to be obvious who I am."

He hid at the house of someone he knew, pretending the police were after him for extremist Islamic videos.

The person helped him get to a neighbouring region, where he took a bus for Moscow.

He then hid in the capital for two months.

- 'Never looked back' -

"He left with just the clothes on his back. He didn't even turn around for a final look," says Guillaume Meline, a film director who set up the organisation "Chechnya Emergency", which helped Azmad upon his arrival in France.

"Even his mother does not know why he left or if he is still alive", in order to avoid retaliation, Meline said.

Azmad obtained an emergency humanitarian visa last week, says Joel Deumier of SOS Homophobia, which acts as a liaison between Russian and French LGBT groups, and is currently working to secure visas for other gay Chechens as well.

For Azmad, it's a chance for a fresh start, even though he still worries about being recognised by members of the Chechen diaspora in France.

"I am going to try to forget," he says, and "become a normal man, that is, begin to live a normal life, a life that normal people live."

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