Vice News says it is the first international news organisation to have gained access to a Chechnyan prison where it is alleged gay men were rounded up and tortured as part of an “anti-gay purge” in the country.
Vice’s Hind Hassan (pictured top right) spoke to Press Gazette about her experience reporting from the southern Russian republic, where she said her team were constantly monitored by government officials.
The investigation followed news of the alleged abuse being broken by the Russian independent newspaper the Novaya Gazeta in April this year, which made international headlines.
As many as 100 gay men are said to have been held captive and tortured in “concentration camps” in the country, including at a prison in the town of Argon, with three thought to have been killed as a result of abuse.
Hassan, formerly of Sky News and Al-Jazeera, said: “At Vice News we want to do the stories that people don’t necessarily cover all the time and get access to and we thought there was something more we could do on this story.”
As part of the nine-minute report (see video below) Hassan spoke with four men who claimed they were victims of torture and abuse by Chechnyan officials, with two of them going on the record while their identities were hidden for their protection.
One of the alleged victims had identified Argun Prison as the place they had been abused and its warden, Ayub Kataev, as one of his abusers.
Hassan was able to put the allegations directly to Kataev, also head of the town’s Ministry for Internal Affairs, as he showed her around the prison site in a first for international media.
Kataev said he didn’t know why he was being accused of committing these crimes, adding: “Maybe they want to blacken my name.” He also claimed he didn’t think gay people lived in Chechnya, something Hassan said she heard a lot from locals.
“The thing that was mentioned over and over again by every single person we spoke to was they had never seen a gay person in Chechnya. They said: ‘If they exist we have never seen them.'”
The Vice news team, including Hassan, Silchenko, “shooter” Daniel Bateman and producer Alex Campbell, had been advised by security experts not to take their personal mobile phones with them and instead bought a mobile and sim card to use as a contact number.
Hassan, 33, said of reporting in Chechnya: “Flying into the country is not a problem, but operating within it is practically impossible. There would be no way of operating in the country unless we went underground and incognito.
“Then there’s the problem that if we speak to people we could get them in trouble – human rights groups had warned is us not to speak to locals because there was a real danger their lives would be at risk from the government for speaking to the media.
“The only way we could go in was through official channels and see what we could get.”
Hassan said the government granted permission for them to film because they “were very eager to show us that there was absolutely no proof that these alleged attacks happened” and that “the people who were making the allegations were doing it to blacken the names of Chechnyans”.
Said Hassan: “It’s clear the government enforces a high-level of control on its people and there are certain elements of the culture that a lot of them don’t go against and honour in the family is very important there. Using that they have been able to suppress any victims talking out publicly about the crimes committed against them.”
Despite the climate of control, Hassan said Chechnyan officials “went out of their way to make us feel welcome”, adding: “I think they wanted to make us see the positive side of their culture. Even though they were fasting [for Ramadan] they had their cook make some food for us.”