MOSCOW - In a suburban Moscow home on Wednesday, a few sleepy Chechen men in their twenties nervously mill about and one by one introduce themselves to visiting journalists.
There are six gay Chechen men hiding in the house because they fear that their lives, and their relatives, could be in danger.
They fled Russia's Republic of Chechnya as independent media reported a crackdown on gay men involving hundreds of abductions, torture, and at least three murders.
"At first, I thought that all was as usual, the same as it had happened to me in 2016," says one man living at the house under the false name Ilya to protect his identity. "I had got acquainted with a man, through a social network, went to meet him, and he turned out to be a set-up. So three men beat me and the fourth videotaped it. They broke my jaw and I was beaten blue."
Ilya says when that happened a year ago, the men blackmailed him for about $3,500. But this year, he says, the threats and disappearances in Chechnya's underground gay community began adding up quickly.
"It all started in the middle of March. Everybody wrote that the gays were being hunted in Grozny. I did not pay much attention," Ilya said. "I had experienced it before and thought that the same thing was going on. I did not think that it was on such a mass level. If they caught one man, they found two or three [more] from his [phone] contacts. If they caught them, then another nine were caught. That's how it was happening."
'Catch him or kill him'
Russian authorities say there is no evidence that gay men in Russia's conservative republic of Chechnya are facing a wave of persecution, as reported by independent Russian media. Hundreds of gay Chechen men have reportedly fled the region amid allegations of abduction, torture and murder being covered up.
Ilya says he just missed police when they came to his family's house in Grozny, Chechnya's capital.
"They told my mother that their son was gay, they needed either to catch him or to kill him," said Ilya. "They gave her all the details of what they were going to do to me. My mother called me, she cried and said that she would never believe that I was gay. She was so worried and to calm her down I told her that it was not so. I shook when I told her that."
When a friend's mother called him to say her son had gone missing, Ilya decided he had to leave Chechnya.
"I have heard also that the guys that had been caught were given back to their parents. The parents were told: 'Either you'll kill him or we'll kill him.' It is called to wash the disgrace away with the blood. The disgrace that such a man brought into his family."
The men take sedatives to calm fears that Chechen authorities, or their own relatives, could find them.
Authorities deny gay Chechens exist
Rights activists say discrimination and abuse is common in Chechnya's conservative, religious culture, where being openly gay is not accepted.
"I wish I could forget it as soon as possible," says another gay Chechen hiding at the house who gives his name as Timur. "It won't be forgotten here, even in Moscow. There is no way back to Chechnya, where everyone would point fingers at me."
Chechen authorities not only deny the allegations, but also deny the very existence of gay Chechens.
Chechnya's human rights council member Kheda Saratova told Russian radio "any person who respects our traditions and culture will hunt down this kind of person without any help from authorities," reported The Guardian newspaper.
"I am a gay person, I know other gay men, who know other gay men so there are many of us in Chechnya," Ilya said. "The gay men in Chechnya are being caught, there is a prison in the city of Argun, as friends tell. Some were released and they escaped here. They were told that if they left Chechnya, [authorities] would harm or kill their relatives."
Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, in a meeting Wednesday at the Kremlin with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, called the allegations and reports a provocation.
"Some 'good people,' in quotes, write to us that in our republic, it is not quite decent to talk about it, people are being detained, killed, and even one family name was mentioned," Kadyrov said. "Someone said he had been killed, but he is at home."
Putin apparently accepted the explanation. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there's no reason not to believe Kadyrov. He echoed the words of Russia's Human Rights Commissioner Tatiana Moskalkova, who said there was no evidence that gay Chechens were being abused and no reported abductions.
Activists helping the men escape say authorities' statements give gay Chechens good reason not to trust them.
"What is going on in Chechnya now is the utter expression of what is going in the whole of Russia," said Olga, of the Moscow Community Center for LGBT. "In Chechnya, they have their own authorities and their own laws that allow total criminality. But similar things happen in small Russian towns from where they have to flee to bigger cities."
Russia's independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper first reported the alleged abuse of gay Chechens, including three murders — one by torture and two by their own relatives.
Its reporters have since received a number of threats, including a white powder mailed to their office this week from Chechnya.
On Thursday, Russia's Ministry of Emergency Situations sent a mobile chemical laboratory to the office to investigate.
"We have worked for over 20 years, and there has not been a single case when we were found guilty of spreading lies," said special correspondent Irina Gordienko. "And the fact that the authorities call [our report] a provocation, and denunciation, let them prove it. We can't reveal our sources because it would be such a threat to people that they could be physically eradicated."
It is not the first time that Novaya Gazeta has been targeted for its reporting on rights abuses in Chechnya. Two of its journalists — Anna Politkovskaya and Natalia Estemirova — were murdered in killings widely believed to be related to their work exposing abuses in Chechnya.
The newspaper has been threatened in many different ways, Gordienko says.
"It is the reaction of the Chechen authorities that is extraordinary, because right after the article being published about 15,000 people got together in a mosque in the center of Grozny," Gordienko said. "These were respected people of Chechnya. And a sort of meeting was conducted there. And they cursed Novaya Gazeta by stating that we tarnish century-old traditions of the Chechen people and that vengeance [reprisal] is required and that we should be charged."
Chechen religious leaders have since stepped back from the threats to say they meant they would take the newspaper to court.
For some of the Chechen men hiding in the temporary safe house, it's not just in Chechnya but in Russia where they don't feel safe.
Some are acquiring passports and visas with plans to leave the country as soon as possible.
Olga Pavlova and Ricardo Marquina Montanana contributed to this report.