Whistleblower on prison torture: 'I was always afraid of getting caught'

A former inmate of a Saratov penal colony, IT-specialist Syarhey Savelyeu (Sergej Saveljev) from Belarus, collected mass scale video footage of torture of prisoners in Russian camps. He fled the country and asked for political asylum in France. Russia has put him on a wanted list, for disclosing information that may 'harm state security'. In an Interview with Mike Eckel from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Savelyeu explained that prison guards especially use sexual assault to break prisoners or force them to cooperate. The authorities promised an investigation.

martelingen klokkenluider saveljevFormer inmate Syarhey Savelyeu from Belarus collected mass scale footage of torture in Russian prisons. 

by Mike Eckel

А former Russian inmate who leaked a massive cache of videos showing evidence of rampant torture in Russian prisons said he believes prison guards were prone to using sexual assault against their victims 'because it is the cruelest'.

The videos, secretly obtained by Syarhey Savelyeu and then leaked to and published by a Russian rights group, have shone a brutal spotlight on the widespread problem of torture in Russian jails and prisons, which has been largely ignored by authorities.

Speaking to RFE/RL from France, where he is seeking political asylum, Savelyeu, a 31-year-old native of Belarus, said that he himself was abused by security agents in custody, though not while he was serving his sentence in a facility in the central Saratov region.

In one of several videos that have been made public, a male prisoner can be seen screaming while being raped with a broomstick. Other clips showed prisoners urinating on other inmates, as well as graphic images of rape.

Asked in an interview why prison guards were so often shown sexual abusing inmates, usually with foreign objects like bottles or broom handles, Savelyeu said it was 'probably because it is the cruelest. It immediately breaks a person, breaks any will to resist'.

(Because of the graphic nature of the videos, RFE/RL has decided not to post them or to link to other sites that have done so.)

A former IT specialist, Savelyeu was arrested while visiting the southern Russian region of Krasnodar in 2015 and sentenced on drug-trafficking charges. He said he was asked to hold a package for an acquaintance; the package later turned out to contain illegal drugs.

He said he was sentenced to nine years in prison but was released in February 2021.

IT worker in prison

While in prison, Savelyeu was employed as an IT worker, which gave him access to videos stored in the prison's servers that were shot in several facilities in the Vladimir, Saratov, and Irkutsk regions between 2018 and 2020.

He said he secretly managed to record the videos onto USB and hard drives; none of his supervisors paid any attention or tried to account for the equipment. 

'I was afraid, of course', of getting caught, he told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. 'I was always afraid, every day. Just being there [in prison] is constant stress, but when you are afraid all the time, the fear gradually dulls, you get used to it.

'I understood perfectly well that if someone found out, saw that I was not deleting all this, that I was keeping it, I would not have been allowed to be released', he said.

As his release date neared, he hid the drives in a secret location near the exit where he knew he would be escorted out, then left with them. He said he wasn’t searched by guards upon release.

After his release, Savelyeu continued living in Russia. In September he was on his way to see friends in Novosibirsk when he was detained by security agents as he was attempting to make a transfer flight at the St. Petersburg airport.

Savelyeu said the security agents interrogated him about the videos, even though they hadn’t been released publicly yet and were circulating only among people in human rights circles - an indication that security agencies were aware that a leak had occurred.

Syarhey Savelyeu in France: 'I was afraid, of course', of getting caught, he told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. 'I was always afraid, every day.'

'They knew … that I was passing [the videos] on. They had my mail log-ins, my correspondence, conversation records. They knew that it was me who was transmitting these videos', he told Current Time in separate comments. 'But where and how I got them -- they did not know at that time.'

But Savelyeu said that police questioned him as a witness rather than as a suspect in the investigation, and that they asked him for his cooperation. He agreed to help and was released, he said, and he flew onto Novosibirsk.

'I convinced them that I would cooperate. They were sure that if I wanted to cross the border, they would be able to track it down and stop it', Savelyeu said.

Asylum request in France

During his time in Novosibirsk, Savelyeu said he was contacted regularly by an officer from the Federal Security Service, who pestered him about when he was flying home to Belarus. The officer tried to persuade Savelyeu to fly to Moscow before traveling on to Minsk. 

He said he bought his tickets with a transfer at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, but that instead of boarding the Minsk flight he left the airport, found a minibus that was driving from Moscow to Minsk, and crossed the border into Belarus that way.

Not long after that, he flew from Minsk to Turkey. He arrived on October 16 in France, where he has requested asylum.

The rights group to which Savelyeu turned the videos over, Gulagu.net, began publishing some of them earlier this month. The group’s founder, Vladimir Osechkin, who earlier had publicly identified Savelyeu, lives in France.

In the wake of the videos’ publication, federal prosecutors said officials were conducting inspections of correctional facilities in Saratov to see if inmates there were being abused. Officials with the federal agency overseeing the country’s vast network of prisons had also been sent to Saratov to 'verify the accuracy of the information'.

Savelyeu said he sees little chance of substantive reform.

'Yes, it will change for the better. But it is still very difficult to say what specific changes there will be. Too little time has passed', he said. 'Now they will try to cover their tracks. They opened several criminal cases, they put pressure on those under investigation so that they would not give up those who gave them orders. If people still find the strength to speak the truth, then we will achieve much more.'

This article was published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Mike Eckel, based on reporting by Sergei Khazov-Cassia of RFE/RL’s Russian Service and Aleksei Aleksandrov of Current Time

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