European Court Finds Russia Responsible for Torturing of Gay Man “Solely on Account of his Sexual Orientation”

In a unanimous Chamber judgment on 12 September 2023, the European Court of Human Rights found that, in 2017, Maksim Grigoryevich Lapunov – an openly gay Russian man – had been seized in public by police in Chechnya, held incommunicado and tortured in custody because of discrimination based on his sexual orientation. 

Mr Lapunov’s detailed account of his abduction and torture by State agents between 16 and 28 March 2017, which included being repeatedly beaten, an attempted sexual assault and the forcible identification of other gay men, was held to be credible, corroborated by evidence and unrefuted by the Russian State. The European Court concluded that the severe physical and psychological violence to which Mr Lapunov was subjected, which left him with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, amounted to torture under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). 

The European Court also decided that State investigators had failed to conduct an effective investigation by (amongst other things) not properly considering possible discriminatory motives, which also violated Article 3. In a joint third-party intervention in the case REDRESS, together with other NGOs, submitted that to be effective, the investigation of torture and ill-treatment based on prejudice, should ensure that the discriminatory element of torture is examined, that all relevant evidence is gathered, and that the investigation can eventually lead to the identification and prosecution of those responsible. On this point, the Court affirmed that States have “an additional duty to take all reasonable steps to unmask any bias motive”, which in this case Russia failed to do.  

Significantly, the decision found that the torture had been driven by discriminatory motives, in violation of Article 14 (non-discrimination) in conjunction with Article 3 (freedom from torture). The European Court specified that Mr Lapunov “was subjected to targeted violence solely on account of his sexual orientation”, but that no reasonable steps appeared to have been taken to investigate the role played by “homophobic motives” in his torture.  

These conclusions reflect the approach of other international human rights bodies in finding that discriminatory motives are of particular importance when assessing the nature of ill-treatment against vulnerable groups, and echo the decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Azul Rojas Marín v Peru. In addition, the European Court explicitly recognised that “prejudice-motivated crimes cannot be treated on an equal footing with ordinary cases that do not carry such overtones.” 

Mr Lapunov’s unacknowledged detention was also held to be in breach of the ECHR, in a context of systemic failure to investigate unacknowledged detentions and disappearances perpetrated in Chechnya.   

The European Court placed Mr Lapunov’s ordeal within the context of wider reports (by NGOs, the Council of Europe, other international organisations and the media), of organised and premeditated “anti-gay purges” led by public agents in Chechnya in 2017 and the Russian State’s systemic failure to acknowledge its discriminatory nature. These “purges” involved unlawful arrests, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearances and “honour killings” condoned by State authorities. 

Affirming the findings of these reports, the European Court characterised the situation of LGBTI persons in Chechnya as one involving “gross human rights violations”, against the backdrop of the well-documented precarious wider human rights context in that region.  

REDRESS Legal Advisor, Chris Esdaile, said: 

“Our third-party intervention in this case continues REDRESS’s long history of contributing to the jurisprudence of the European Court in key cases in relation to the right to be free from torture. We welcome the emphasis which the Court has placed on discriminatory motives, which are often behind violence committed against LGBTIQ+ individuals.” 

REDRESS would like to thank the other organisations which collaborated on the third-party intervention: the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA-Europe); the Advice on Individual Rights in Europe Centre (AIRE Centre); the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).  

This case is representative of issues which exist not only in the European region, but worldwide. Further background on the importance of investigations into LGBTIQ+ torture, and the importance of holding States accountable, can be found in our Briefing Paper and video. 

Photo credit: Human Rights Watch