Sergey Savelyev does not appear to be someone who has spent eight years in a Russian prison, secretly collecting videos of alleged torture and beatings of inmates.
Short in stature, the 31-year-old Belarusian says that now, for the first time in weeks, he can sleep a little better. He has applied for asylum in France, after fleeing Russia, where he feared for his safety.
Now he openly admits that he was the informant who delivered more than 1,000 videos to the Russian human rights group Gulagu.net.
The videos, which Savelyev obtained while working in a prison office where he was serving his sentence, caused outrage in Russia when they appeared online earlier this month.
Following the dissemination of the material, the Russian authorities announced the launch of criminal investigations into alleged torture and sexual assault in prisons and have fired several senior prison officials.
Gulagu.net said that the videos not only documentsn beatings, rapes and humiliations to which inmates have been subjected, but also demonstrate the endemic nature of abuse within the prison system.
A choice between life and death
Savelyev began sharing the 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 detained at the St. Petersburg airport when he was traveling to Novosibirsk. At the check-in counter, plainclothes men began questioning him.
They said they knew all about his correspondence with Vladimir Osechkin, director of Gulagu.net.
“They told me they had been watching me for six months. They threatened to imprison me for treason for 20 years, ”Savelyev said.
He claimed that the men warned him that he would “die very quickly” in jail.
“First you will confess everything and then you will be found dead in a cellHe said, citing the men who approached him.
His alternative to prevent this from happening to him was to cooperate with the investigation and admit that Gulagu.net was a “foreign-funded” organization that had him collecting evidence to “discredit the Russian prison service.”
In that case, he could be released from prison after four years.
“The real choice was between life and death. I chose life, ”Savelyev says.
He claims that he signed some papers agreeing to cooperate with the authorities and they let him go.
“They probably thought that I would not dare to escape.” But it did.
He took a minibus from Russia to Belarus and then, with a stopover in Tunisia, he traveled to France. Once in the transit area of the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, he sought the help of the police.
“They just need to bend you”
In 2013, Savelyev was convicted of a drug-related crime and was sentenced to nine years in prison. Without offering details, he says that his was a “sad and common” case.
He was sent to jail in the Russian city of Saratov, known for allegations of prisoner abuse.
Savelyev alleges that they brutally beat him as soon as he arrived. “They just need to bend you, to show who’s boss,” he said.
Later, he was lucky enough to be found to be able to use a computer and was taken to the jail office to work in an administrative role.
“It was so much better than idling between meals and trying to keep your head down,” he said.
One of their tasks was to watch video recordings of the body cameras of the guards from prison.
He soon realized that while many of the recordings simply documented the guards’ rounds, some appeared to show violent abuse of inmates and were deeply disturbing.
“You can’t imagine how this is”
Savelyev claims that the torture was often carried out by other “specially trained” inmates and was filmed with cameras handed to them by the guards.
He indicates that part of his job was to remove some of the videos, while others “were sent elsewhere, perhaps to higher levels.”
Savelyev says he never saw this type of violent abuse in person, but the videos caused him a deep shock.
“We all know that beatings and rapes happen inside, but you can’t imagine what that is like until you see it with your own eyes“, said.
It took him some time to process what was happening and decide what to do next.
“I saw a video, then another, then a third and a fourth, a fifth. Then I decided that I would start copying them ”, he relates.
Initially, I didn’t have a clear idea of what to do with the videos, but I knew that I had to save them. In 2019, he decided to collect the videos and then hand them over to a human rights organization.
Savelyev says that while working in the prison office he also saw the numerous complaints that arose about the mistreatment of prisoners, which he says made him realize how widespread the abuse was.
The BBC sent Savelyev’s allegations to the Russian Prison Service, but at the time this article was published, we had not yet received a response.
In early 2021, Savelyev learned of Gulagu.net and heard Vladimir Osechkin speak on his YouTube channel about prison violence, including the Savelyev prison.
That made him realize that there could be other peopleinside the jail leaking information to the NGO. He knew his video evidence would do some good, too.
Reflecting on the scandal caused by his leaks and the investigation 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 will I feel better,” he said.
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