National Coming Out Day: A survivor of Chechnya's anti-gay purge steps out of the shadows

When Amin Dzhabrailov first spoke to "60 Minutes," he asked to remain anonymous. Now, he said he is ready to put a face and name to his story of torture

Gay man who fled torture told his story

"I want to tell the truth. People are being abducted… they're being thrown into prison. And I wanted to stop this." Amin Dzhabrailov, survivor of Chechnya's anti-gay purge 

It was a cold, sunny Friday in March of 2017. Amin Dzhabrailov, a hair stylist in the Chechen capital of Grozny, had just finished his lunch and returned to the salon where he worked to talk with a bride about her upcoming wedding. 
 
Before Amin could finish dyeing the bride's hair for her big day, three men in military uniforms barged into the salon and apprehended him. They twisted his arms behind his back, slapped handcuffs on his wrists, and pushed him into the trunk of a car. 

Dzhabrailov's crime? He is gay in Chechnya, whose leader has publicly denied the very existence of gay citizens.

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Amin Dzhabrailov at the salon where he worked in Chechnya

Coming out of the shadows

When Dzhabrailov first spoke to "60 Minutes" in May 2019, he asked producers to conceal his identity and interview him in shadow. He was worried about retaliation and feared for the safety of his family in Grozny. Few Chechens have spoken publicly about the detainment and torture they experienced at the hands of authorities during the 2017 anti-gay purge

For National Coming Out Day, Dzhabrailov said he wants the world to see his face, know his name, and hear his story. 
  
"I've been talking about this for two years, and for a lot of people this was not true," Dzhabrailov told "60 Minutes" recently. "They didn't believe it because there was no face behind the story. And I believe that by showing my face that I will convince people that this is true and will make a difference." 

Kidnapped and tortured in Chechnya 

On the day he was abducted, Dzhabrailov said his captors drove him to an abandoned warehouse, where other gay men were being held. He remembers his captors proudly announcing, "We brought another one."

He said they sat him on a chair and began beating him with plastic batons until he admitted he was gay. "I'm gay," Dzhabrailov recalled telling them. The men in uniform put a bag over his head, which clung to his face and made it hard to breathe. Dzhabrailov said one of the captors brandished a gun, put the barrel to his forehead, and told him those would be the last seconds of his life. 

He said the torture continued for two weeks. He recalled how his captors were careful not to leave evidence of the beatings, only striking parts of his body under his clothes.  

"I'd never seen skin turn such a deep, dark blue," Dzhabrailov said. "And it wasn't just myself. All of the other kids that were there had the same bruises as me."

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Amin Dzhabrailov

Dzhabrailov said his captors demanded he give up the names and phone numbers of other gay men he knew. They pressed him: where did they live, and precisely where could they be picked up? Dzhabrailov said he screamed out answers, yelling fake names and made-up locations. 

"I'm very proud I didn't give up any names," he said. "I didn't want to have to look into another man's eyes and know that he was going through this because of me."

One night, Dzhabrailov said, the captors called his family to come pick him up. Dzhabrailov said Chechen authorities told his family he was gay. They said he brought dishonor to Chechnya and that the republic needed to be cleansed of this shame. 
  
"They were asking [my family] to kill me," Dzhabrailov recalled. "I don't know what else they could've done with us after all this torture, after everything that they had done to us." 

Dzhabrailov was eventually released to his family. They brought him home and, few days later, on his 25th birthday, he left behind everything and everyone he knew and fled to Moscow. 

Where being gay is met by punishment

Same-sex relations are a crime in 70 countries worldwide, according to human rights groups. In some countries, including Bangladesh, Qatar, and Uganda, the sentence is life in prison, and in others, including Afghanistan, Brunei, and Iran, it is punishable by death. The United Nations has said global gains in LGBTQ rights, including marriage equality, have been met with backlash in many parts of the world.

Reports of an anti-gay purge in the Russian republic first surfaced in April 2017. Reports of the persecution then spread around the world, from news outlets and human rights organizations, to the United Nations.

Shortly after reports of a crackdown surfaced, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov denied the purge, insisting there are no gay men in Chechnya. "This is nonsense. We don't have those kinds of people here," he said in an interview with HBO's show "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." 

The international community condemned the 2017 Chechen purge, but Human Rights Watch has reported the crackdowns continue. The group detailed a new anti-gay purge in Grozny earlier this year. 

In February, UN experts also sounded an alarm about the worsening situation for LGBTQ people in Chechnya, saying that Chechen authorities are now reportedly trying to prevent victims from fleeing the region. 

"Abuse inflicted on victims has allegedly become more cruel and violent compared with reports from 2017," reads a statement released by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. "It is no longer only gay men in Chechnya who are being targeted but women also."

Dzhabrailov told "60 Minutes" he feels it is important for him to put a face to the stories of gay Chechen men in order to draw attention to their ongoing persecution.

"I want to tell the truth," he said. "People are being abducted… they're being thrown into prison. And I wanted to stop this."

How Rainbow Railroad is helping

Rainbow Railroad: The organization saving LGBT citizens from hostile governments

After he escaped from Chechnya, Dzhabrailov made his way to Moscow and connected with the Russian LGBT Network. They helped him find shelter in St. Petersburg and told him about a group called Rainbow Railroad. 

As "60 Minutes" correspondent Jon Wertheim reported in May, Rainbow Railroad was founded in 2006. Based in Toronto, the organization has evacuated more than 600 LGBTQ individuals from 22 hostile countries such as Egypt and Jamaica. Last year, Rainbow Railroad fielded more than a thousand requests for help and said that number will likely increase this year.

An international network of LGBTQ groups and safe houses, Rainbow Railroad refers potential escapees, secures visas, and pays for flights to safety. The organization is funded with private donations.

"The majority of people that we help have told harrowing stories of being hunted down, of being excommunicated by their churches, their families, their communities, and so they've come to us really desperate," Rainbow Railroad executive director Kimahli Powell told Wertheim. 

A new life in Canada 

Today, Dzhabrailov lives in Canada and works with Rainbow Railroad, the organization he credits with helping him get to safety. 

"What we're doing is saving lives," he said. "I can say for certain that they saved my life."

Dzhabrailov told "60 Minutes" his life in Canada is very different from his home country. At first, he said, it was challenging for him to leave behind his life in Chechnya—and the feeling that he had lost everything. Now that he is learning English and adapting to daily life, he said he is enjoying his new freedom. He said he accepts himself more now. "I have more love," he said.

Dzhabrailov said that, while he still fears for his family in Grozny, he must move forward and tell his story.

"I'm doing this because I'm hoping that things will change there," he said. "That it will stop, that people will learn to accept themselves for who they are and not be afraid and embarrassed of who they are and what they feel."  

The video above was produced by Will Croxton, Nathalie Sommer, Vanessa Fica, and Brit McCandless Farmer. Thanks to Svetlana Berdnikova.