Hundreds of men in the Russian republic of Chechnya have been rounded up and detained recently on suspicion of being homosexual, and at least three have died while in custody, according to a prominent Russian newspaper.

Novaya Gazeta, which reported the crackdown Saturday, said it was aware of other sources who say the death toll may be far higher. The gay men who have disappeared from the streets of Grozny, the Chechen capital, and other towns and cities are said to have ranged in age from 16 to 50.

Novaya Gazeta, a Moscow-based publication known for independent investigative reporting and its willingness to confront Russian officialdom, said it learned of the action against gay men in Chechnya from the Interior Ministry in the Caucasus republic, local activists and law enforcement sources.

The men were detained “in connection with their nontraditional sexual orientation, on suspicion of such,” Novaya Gazeta reported. It said none of the detainees had openly disclosed their sexual orientation — a move the paper equated with asking for a death sentence in the largely Muslim North Caucasus region.

The account also quoted locals as saying Chechens who used gay contact groups on social messaging networks have been abandoning them and closing their accounts. It further quoted sources in Chechnya’s special services as describing the police sweep as “a preventative clear-out” aimed at discouraging public gay rights rallies.

Chechen leader: no gay men here

There was no immediate comment on the report from authorities in Moscow, which has granted its Muslim-majority Caucasus republics freedom to enforce traditional Muslim values.

However, a spokesman for Chechnya’s authoritarian leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, denied the Novaya Gazeta report in a statement to the Russian news agency Interfax that claimed no one in the republic is homosexual.

“You cannot arrest or repress people who just don’t exist in the republic,” Alvi Karimov said.

“If such people existed in Chechnya, law enforcement would not have to worry about them,” Karimov added, “since their own relatives would have sent them to where they could never return.”

Novaya Gazeta has a history of confrontation with the Chechen government and the republic’s Kremlin handlers.

Reporter’​s death

In 2006, Gazeta reporter and human rights activist Anna Politkovskaya wrote a series of reports critical of Russia, Kadyrov and Moscow’s role in the second Chechen war.

In her last interview, Politkovskaya described Chechen leader Kadyrov to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as a “coward armed to the teeth and surrounded by security guards.”

She said she hoped to see Kadyrov “someday sitting in the dock, in a trial that meets the strictest legal standards,” facing justice for atrocities allegedly committed by his forces during the Moscow-backed war against separatists in Chechnya.

Politkovskaya’s interview with RFE/RL took place October 5, 2006. Two days later, she was shot dead at point-blank range as she entered an elevator in her Moscow apartment building. Her colleagues blamed the assassination on Kadyrov.

The fateful interview that week coincided with then-Prime Minister Kadyrov’s 30th birthday, a milestone that meant he could seek the republic’s presidency, which he did a few months later.

Five men were eventually convicted of killing Politkovskaya.

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