MOSCOW, Sept 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Receiving photos of mutilated bodies with the warning “you’re next” rattled gay rights activist Nikita Tomilov but when he saw surveillance men outside his home, he fled Russia for good.
The threats via social media came from Pila - Russian for “saw” - a homophobic group which has said it was behind the fatal stabbing in July of an LGBT+ activist whose name was among a dozen on their widely-circulated assassination “blacklist”.
“I went to the police when I saw two masked men lurking outside my apartment, but they said they couldn’t do anything without proof that these men were there,” Tomilov, 22, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via Skype from a European country.
“What kind of proof could I bring them? And my family members started receiving threats as well. I realised it was too dangerous for me to stay in Russia.”
Elena Grigoryeva, 41, was stabbed eight times in the face and back in St Petersburg. The Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes, said she was murdered by a local resident she had been drinking with and detained two suspects.
Although the police did not treat the murder as a hate crime initially, they promised to investigate whether Pila had anything to do with Grigoryeva’s death after complaints from lesbian gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) rights groups.
Pila - which takes its name from the “Saw” American horror movies - is the latest threat to shake the LGBT+ community in Russia, where homosexuality was deemed a criminal offence until 1993 and classed as a mental illness until 1999.
Violence against gay people and hostility from the wider community has been on the rise since 2013 when the Kremlin adopted a gay “propaganda” law as part of a drive to defend what President Vladimir Putin called Russia’s “traditional values”.
LGBT+ campaigners say the law has helped authorities crack down on activists and contributed to a rise in anti-LGBT+ hate crimes as well as police reluctance to investigate them.
The Russian LGBT Network, which offers legal aid to gay people, said only eight out of 64 cases of physical violence against LGBT+ people that it received in 2018 were investigated by the police.
Moscow police headquarters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov and human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova did not respond to requests for comment. In several public statements, Putin has said there is no discrimination against LGBT+ people in Russia.
Pila has used its website, Instagram, Russia’s biggest social network VK and messaging app Telegram to call for gay Russians to be deported, posted a list of LGBT+ activists to be assassinated, and offered cash rewards for attacks on them.
Opinions differ on the danger it poses. The size of the vigilante group, which became active online in mid-2018, and the identities of its backers remain unclear.
Tomilov believes it is a powerful organisation capable of murder, while others see it merely an intimidation campaign, unlikely to go beyond online threats.
“We can’t be certain it’s a real group that can organise physical attacks on people,” said Igor Kochetkov, head of the Russian LGBT Network.
“There isn’t a single confirmed fact of assaults, let alone murders, committed by the so-called Pila. What we’re seeing is a website that comes and goes, emails and messages on social media.”
Pila’s website and all of its online accounts were blocked last month after complaints from activists who fear its threats are fuelling homophobia and violence against LGBT+ people.
“They openly call for violence against certain people, but law enforcement has taken no action whatsoever,” said Alexander Kondakov, a sociologist at Finland’s University of Helsinki who authored a study on anti-gay hate crimes in Russia.
“This terrible situation encourages not just Pila itself, but others like them, too - people see that these actions go unpunished.
LGBT+ rights group Vykhod said the police promised to examine and analyse screenshots of Pilas website last week.
Vitaly Bespalov, editor of the gay news site ParniPlus, received an email on Aug. 26 instructing him to kill Maxim Lapunov - a gay man who went public about being kidnapped and tortured in Chechnya - before Oct. 1 or else be killed himself.
“You, surely, haven’t forgotten that boozer Yelena Grigoryeva?” said the email, written in Russian in capital letters, sent from an email address containing Pila’s name.
“Our slave offed her – but you’ll never find those who ordered it,” said the email, seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, using a slang phrase meaning to kill someone.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation was unable to independently authenticate the email or reach Pila for comment. Emails sent to the address used to threaten Bespalov failed to deliver “due to a permission or security issue”.
“I filed a complaint to the Interior Ministry,” said Bespalov. “But they know they will go unpunished. If they wrote something against Putin, the police would have found them the next day. They understand that no one will even look for them.”
Alexei Nazarov, an LGBT+ activist from St Petersburg, was targeted in an identical email on Aug. 26, which was sent to one of his friends who was instructed to kill him. Nazarov declined to name the friend who received the email for safety reasons.
Nazarov said he thought Pila was just a creepy online campaign but its calls for violence were dangerous.
"What if someone mentally unstable reads it, interprets it as a call to action and kills me for real?" he asked. (Reporting by Daria Litvinova @dashalitvinovv; Editing by Hugo Greenhalgh and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)