by Ed Lyon
Here’s a story with a familiar ring to it: A massive prison bureaucracy, which regularly clears its staff when prisoners are brutally abused, is forced by leaked video to finally hold someone to account—so it goes after the whistleblower.
This is the basic outline of what happened to Jim Darby, the M.P. who blew the whistle in January 2004 on the torture of Iraqi prisoners held by the U.S. Army at Abu Ghraib. For that, Darby was rewarded with a public outing by then-Defense Chief Donald Rumsfeld, forcing Darby and his family into hiding.
But it is also the story of Sergei Savelyev, a Belarusian native assigned to work as an IT maintenance officer in a Russian prison while serving time on a drug conviction. There he found videos of prisoners being tortured in several Russian prisons and jails, as well as a tuberculosis sanitarium. Savelyev copied the videos onto a thumb drive and smuggled them out of the prison when he was released in February 2021.
After he began sharing the videos online, he was stopped at the St. Petersburg airport in September 2021 by agents with the Russian FSB, the secretive police force that succeeded the USSR’s notorious KGB. Confronted about his video-sharing, he was allegedly coerced into signing a confession that said he was acting on behalf of foreigners intent on “discrediting the Russian prison service.”
After that, the 31-year-old fled by bus to Belarus and flew via Tunisia to France, where the recipient of his video-sharing, Vladmir Osechkin, had been living in exile since 2015, operating the anti-corruption gulagu.net website where the videos were posted.
The purpose of Osechkin’s site is exposing abuse and torture of those incarcerated in Russian jails and prisons. Some of the posted footage shows men being sexually assaulted with sticks and other objects, and one even shows a man “tied up on the ground as uniformed [guards] urinated on his face,” the site explained.
Predictably, the Russian government charged Savelyev in October 2021 with “illegal access to computer information,” and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Savelyev by then was in France and had applied for asylum. In a video interview posted on Osechkin’s site, he lamented that “instead of using the time to reform the system and investigate all this terrible evidence we gave them, [the Russian government is] trying to hide the truth.”
“They are going down the only path they know, the path of force,” Savelyev added.
Since the torture and abuse videos were posted, the Russian Federal Prison Service (FPS) sacked a prison’s director and its doctor, as well as three members of its regional staff. Five people have also been criminally charged.
“We are doing everything to work things out and draw the appropriate conclusions,” a local FPS director, Anton Yefarkin, announced on state television. “I am sure that in the future this will not repeat itself.”
On November 10, 2021, charges were also dropped against Savelyev, and he was removed from the Russian Interior Ministry’s wanted list.
Sources: The Guardian, Moscow Times, NDTV
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