‘Huge Number’ Of Russian Officials Knew Of Prison Abuse, Whistle-Blower Says

Syarhey Savelyeu in France: “I am aware that the threat of my physical elimination has not gone away. It remains." (file photo)  

The former inmate of a Russian jail who publicized shocking videos of torture said numerous officials from various agencies were aware of the abuse of prisoners but chose to cover it up rather than expose it.

Syarhey Savelyeu, a 31-year-old Belarusian national who copied the videos while serving a sentence in Saratov in Russia’s Volga region, said in an interview with RFE/RL that he was "astonished" by the number of officials who knew of the torture.

“A huge number of state bodies support and ‘protect’ [the abuse], create a shield around this torture conveyor — so long as it continues to function,” he said in an interview from France, where he is seeking asylum.

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.

Savelyeu said officials from Russia’s Investigative Committee, Prosecutor-General’s Office, and Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) — including both the central and regional offices — “repeatedly” came to the jail in the Saratov region and “all took some measures and actions to conceal these facts" of abuse.

Russia has fired five senior prison officials — including Aleksandr Kalashnikov, the director of the FSIN — and opened a slew of criminal investigations into the abuse since Gulagu.net began publishing the videos earlier this year. But Savelyeu has said he sees little chance of substantive reform.

Russia’s Interior Ministry has also put Sergei Savelyeu on its wanted list.

The videos, which show instances of both torture and sexual assault, have made headlines around the globe.

Savelyeu, an IT specialist, was asked to help operate the prison’s local computer network, including uploading videos and distributing them to prison staff, while serving his sentence. He secretly copied the videos of abuse to a flash drive and turned it over to Gulag.net shortly after his release.

Savelyeu said he could not recall his reaction to the first video of abuse because it was so quickly followed by the second, third, and 10th in “a never-ending series of violence.”

He said he had to hide his feelings about the videos for years while working in the prison.

He described the majority of prison employees as indifferent to the scenes of abuse and said they do not raise their voices because they feel “it is not my business.”

However, Savelyeu chose otherwise.

“If a person watches the suffering of other people day in and day out and sees that everyone thinks this is normal, he has only two paths: He can either accept it and become part of this machine or he can try to do something about it and somehow change it. I chose the second way,” Savelyeu told RFE/RL.

He said the abuse is carried out for a variety of reasons, including “banal blackmail” and punishment for noncompliance with rules. Some prisoners are abused to coerce testimony, including “false” testimony against themselves or someone else.

In the case of prisoners respected or feared by other inmates, the videos of abuse were used to blackmail them into helping the authorities, Savelyeu said.

The guards could influence “a whole mass” of inmates through just one prisoner, he said.

“This prison hierarchy is actively used by the FSIN and FSB officers themselves and is used for their own purposes,” he said.

Savelyeu said he feared for his life as he fled, a trip that took three weeks as he wound his way from the Siberian city of Novosibirsk to Moscow, then Minsk, and then on to Turkey, before arriving in France on October 16.

He said he could not sleep or eat well and lost more than 8 kilograms on the road. But once in France, he said he finally felt a sense of relief.

“I am aware that the threat of my physical elimination has not gone away. It remains. But we have taken a number of steps to make it pointless,” he said, without going into detail.



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