Today, the European Court of Human Rights handed down a ruling in the case of Maxim Lapunov, the only victim of Chechnya’s vile 2017 anti-gay purge who dared seek justice for the torture he suffered at the hands of local law enforcement. The court found Lapunov was “detained and subjected to ill-treatment by State agents,” which “amounted to torture” and was perpetrated “solely on account of his sexual orientation.”
Lapunov took his case to the European Court in May 2019 because the Russian authorities had failed to investigate his assault. Despite great personal risk, Lapunov had been eager to cooperate with Russia’s investigative authorities through the assistance of his persistent lawyers from the Committee Against Torture, a leading Russian human rights group.
I first met Lapunov nearly six years ago, when I moderated a news conference in Moscow at which he publicly told his story for the first time. Lapunov, then 30, described to a roomful of journalists how he had been rounded up and tortured along with dozens of others. His hands shook as he detailed the horrific experience. He stopped several times to regain composure but kept going.
A Russian from Siberia who had traveled to Chechnya for work, Lapunov did not have to face what every Chechen man caught in the purge feared: being targeted by his own relatives or exposing his entire family to overwhelming stigma because of his homosexuality. His captors threatened to kill him if he spoke out, but he refused to be silent. “We all have rights …,” he said at the news conference. “If we just let it be [in Chechnya],… we’ll never know whose son or daughter will be taken next.”
At the time, Russian authorities claimed they could not investigate the purge because no victims stepped up to testify. When Lapunov provided his staggering testimony, they still failed to investigate. In early 2019, Chechen police rounded up and tortured more men because of their presumed sexual orientation. Realizing they would never get the Russian authorities to do their job and investigate, Lapunov and his legal team filed their complaint with the European Court of Human Rights. Today, they won.
After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia lost its Council of Europe membership and there is no hope that the Russian authorities will implement this ruling anytime soon. Yet it sets the record straight. This, I hope, will serve to support all survivors of the purge.