Sergey Savelyev doesn’t look like someone who spent eight years in a Russian prison and secretly collected videos of apparent torture and beatings of inmates.
Small in stature, the 31-year-old Belarusian says he can sleep a little better now, for the first time in weeks. He sought asylum in France, having fled Russia fearing for his safety.
He now freely admits that he was the whistleblower who delivered more than 1,000 videos to the Russian human rights group Gulagu.net.
The videos, which he obtained while working in a prison office during his prison sentence, caused a stir in Russia when they surfaced online earlier this month.
Russian authorities have since claimed to have opened criminal investigations into alleged torture and sexual assaults in prisons and fired several senior prison officials.
- Russia investigates torture allegations in prison
Gulagu.net said the videos not only document beatings, rape and humiliation of inmates, but also demonstrated the endemic nature of abuse within the prison system.
The prison service was contacted for comment.
Choice between life and death
Mr. Savelyev began sharing videos with human rights activists after his release in February this year. Over the course of several months, he shared hundreds of files.
Last month, he was stopped at St. Petersburg airport on his way to Novosibirsk. At the check-in desk, men in civilian clothes began questioning him.
They said they knew all about his correspondence with Vladimir Osechkin, the head of Gulagu.net.
“They told me they had been watching me for six months,” Savelyev said. “They threatened to lock me up for treason for 20 years.”
He said the men had warned him that he would “die very quickly” in prison. “First you will confess everything, and then you will be found dead in a cell,” he told them.
The alternative, Savelyev was told, was for him to cooperate with the investigation and admit that he was put to gather evidence to “discredit the Russian prison service” by the “foreign-funded” Gulagu.net.
In that case, she would have gotten away with only four years inside.
“The real choice was between life and death. I chose life,” says Savelyev.
Mr. Savelyev claims he signed some documents agreeing to cooperate with the authorities and was allowed to go.
“They probably thought I wouldn’t dare run away,” he said. But he ran away.
He took a minibus from Russia to Belarus and then traveled through Tunisia to France. Once in the transit area of Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, he asked the police for help.
‘They just need to break you’
In 2013, Mr. Savelyev was convicted of drug-related offenses and sentenced to nine years in prison. He avoids the details but says his case was “sad and common”. He was sent to a prison in the Russian city of Saratov, known for allegations of prisoner abuse.
He claims he was severely beaten upon arrival. “They just have to tear you apart, to show who the boss is,” he said.
He was later lucky to be seen as someone who knew how to use a PC and was taken to the prison office to work in an administrative role.
“It was much better than waiting for the time between meals and trying to keep my head down,” he said.
One of his duties was to look through the video recordings of the prison guards’ body cameras. He soon realized that while many of the tapes were benign and merely documented the guards’ rounds, some appeared to show violent inmate abuse and were deeply disturbing.
“You can’t imagine what it is like”
Mr. Savelyev argues that torture was usually carried out by other “specially trained” inmates and filmed with cameras distributed by the guards. Part of his job was to delete some videos, while some, he claims, “were sent somewhere else, perhaps at higher levels.”
Mr. Savelyev claims he has never seen this kind of violent abuse in person, but the videos deeply shocked him.
“We all know there are beatings and rape inside, but you can’t imagine what it is like until you see it with your own eyes,” he said.
It took him some time to process what was going on and to figure out what to do next.
“I saw a video, then another, then a third and a quarter, a fifth. Then I decided that I would start copying them.”
Initially, he wasn’t clear on what to do with the videos, but he knew he needed to save them. In 2019 he decided to collect the videos and then hand them over to a human rights organization.
While working in the prison office, Mr. Savelyev also claims to have seen the numerous complaints that have come in about the mistreatment of prisoners, which he says made him realize how widespread the abuse was.
The BBC has presented Savelyev’s allegations to the prison service but, at the time of publication, has not yet received a response.
In early 2021, Mr. Savelyev learned about Gulagu.net and heard Vladimir Osechkin talk about prison violence on his YouTube channel, including in Savelyev Prison.
He made it clear to Mr. Savelyev that there may be others working inside, divulging information to the NGO. He knew his video evidence would serve a purpose as well.
Reflecting on the furor caused by his leaks and investigations by the Russian prison service, Savelyev said it was not enough to fire some guards or transfer them to other prisons.
He wanted them to “explain why they did what they did”. “Only then would I feel better,” he said.
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