By Claire Bigg
Russia's top gay-rights activist says he was kidnapped and pressured by his captors to withdraw a complaint against Moscow authorities from the European Court of Human Rights.
Nikolai Alekseyev resurfaced early on September 18 in Moscow after being arrested at the capital's Domodedovo airport late on September 15 as he prepared to board a flight to Geneva. He had been missing since, and his friends and colleagues had feared for his life.
A spokeswoman for the airport told Russian news agencies that Alekseyev was detained after refusing to take off his shoes at the security check.
The activist rejects this account and claims airport security officials arbitrarily detained him for two hours before handing him over to a group of unidentified men in plainclothes.
He told RFE/RL that he was then driven to a police station in Kashira, a small town some 100 kilometers south of Moscow, where he spent the next two days.
There, he says he was threatened, harassed, and possibly drugged.
"The first night, I slept on a chair and a table. I spent the second night on a kind of banquette. They gave me water, but I think it was laced with something because my reactions were very slow and I felt completely disoriented. I was given very simple food like biscuits," Alekseyev says.
Conflicting reports had emerged in the wake of Alekseyev's mysterious disappearance. While the activist did not respond to repeated calls to his mobile telephone, news agencies said they had received text messages from him saying he had been taken to Belarus and intended to seek political asylum there.
Alekseyev denies such intentions and says the text messages were sent by his captors from his confiscated telephone.
He says they pressured him to withdraw his complaints with the European Human Rights Court protesting Moscow's ban of gay rights rallies.
"They told me it would not cost me much to withdraw this case to avoid stirring tensions. They gave me a document to sign, but of course I didn't sign anything," Alekseyev says.
Alekseyev says he was eventually released and took a bus to Moscow.
His disappearance had raised concerns both in Russia and abroad.
A spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, Bernard Valero, on September 17 had called on Russia to "guarantee Alekseyev's freedom of movement."
The spokesman said Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner planned to raise the case on September 18 at a previously scheduled meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, adding that France "condemns violations of human rights and basic freedoms related to issues of sexual orientation."
Alekseyev is well known for organizing annual gay pride parades in Moscow that have been marred by violence and arrests.
Moscow's powerful mayor, Yury Luzhkov, has consistently banned the demonstration, which he has described as the "work of Satan."
Alekseyev says his captors never identified themselves, but he does not think Russian secret services were involved in his kidnapping.
"I don't think federal structures would have resorted to such means if they had wanted something from me. I think this is largely linked to Moscow authorities and the actions we have taken against them at the European Court," Alekseyev says.
Luzhkov is currently embroiled in what appears to be a bitter dispute with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, fuelling speculation that he might be forced to quit before his current term expires in June.
Alekseyev planned to attend an anti-Luzhkov demonstration on September 21 in Moscow.
He says he will seek a thorough investigation into his detention at Domodedovo airport and plans to sue airport authorities, which he said had no right to detain him in the boarding zone since, according to him, he had already passed security and had effectively left Russian territory.
Alekseyev says he will also sue Swissair, which he accuses of doing nothing to prevent his detention.
There has been no reaction so far from security officials and Domodedovo authorities.