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Sergei Samborsky says his only regret was complaining to the authorities. "I can see that was useless," he said. (file photo)

Shortly before he hurriedly left Russia for Georgia, Sergei Samborsky visited the office of presidential human rights commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova.

A resident of Tomsk, Samborsky made headlines last month after he released shocking video of appalling conditions inside the "red zone" of the Siberian city’s largest COVID-19 hospital. In a telephone interview from self-imposed exile, he told RFE/RL that "reliable" sources in Moskalkova's office advised him to leave the country immediately.

"People there who are in the know told me not to stay in Russia," Samborsky said, adding that he was told it would be “very dangerous” to remain.

“I can't say that I experienced any signs of this. I wasn't followed and I didn't get any direct threats,” he said. “But, first of all, the source was reliable. And, secondly, events all around me were taking a dangerous turn."

Among those events, Samborsky said, were several indications from the prosecutor's office in Tomsk making clear that they objected to the fact that he had filed a legal complaint against the hospital directly to the Investigative Committee in Moscow -- in effect, going over their heads.

"I went to Moscow because I knew that local law enforcement had connections with medical officials and that they wouldn't punish anyone," Samborsky said. "They knew all about the [alleged] violations. So I headed to Moscow to tell them the truth."

In late October, Samborsky learned that his 84-year-old grandmother was on a ventilator in intensive care in Tomsk's infectious-diseases hospital No. 2. He was denied permission to see her and learned from a fellow patient that she was not being cared for properly.

He dressed up in personal protective gear and talked his way into the hospital's "red zone," saying he was a therapist from another department. He found his dying grandmother lying in a pool of urine and feces, covered in vomit, with an oxygen mask strapped uselessly to her forehead.

His video of the situation (above) caused a massive public outcry, and he filed a lawsuit against the hospital's director, Aleksandr Kholopov, a controversial former head of the Tomsk Oblast Health Department, for negligence and mismanagement that led directly to the death of Samborsky's grandmother.

Samborsky said the sources in Moskalkova's office said he would be arrested "directly upon arrival" if he went back to Tomsk.

"And the previous day," he added, "I got a letter from the Health Ministry. I would note that I never wrote to them myself, didn't send them any complaints. But for some reason, the bureaucrats decided to respond to me personally. The point of their letter was that orders had been given to resolve any issues, but that, generally speaking, they found no major violations.

"The conclusion? Nothing was going to change -- and they were going to come after me with all they had for violating the sanitary regime. So that others don't try the same."

The day before his scheduled return to Tomsk, Samborsky instead left Russia for Georgia.

Samborsky says he doesn't regret what he did.

"For three days, before I was exposed and kicked out, I managed to comfort my grandmother and make things at least a bit easier for her," he said. "I have no regrets about that. Of course, I didn’t think it would end in my forced emigration. But I don't regret it. I'd do the same thing again."

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His only regret, he said, was that he filed his complaints with the authorities.

"I can see that was useless," he said, adding that he was naive to think that Moscow would take a different view of the situation in Tomsk or that President Vladimir Putin didn't know what the circumstances in the far-off regions were like.

"The Investigative Committee just sent my complaints to the Tomsk investigators," he said. "That is the source of the danger to me."

Samborsky, a welder by profession, said there was nothing left for him in Tomsk after his grandmother died and his employer fired him because of the hospital scandal. In Georgia, he says he felt welcomed and was able to quickly find a job in a provincial town.

"But I don't feel safe yet," he added. "I can't say for sure that I won't have to move again."

RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report.
Tens of thousands of people have been detained in Belarus since August 2020, and human rights activists say more than 800 people are now in jail as political prisoners. (file photo)

MINSK -- Belarusian law enforcement officers have searched the homes of several journalists and rights activists across the country as a crackdown on civil society and dissent continues more than a year after a disputed August 2020 presidential election that authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka claims to have won.

Dozens of news websites have been blocked in Belarus in recent months and independent media outlets shut down as part of a sweeping crackdown on information in the wake of unprecedented protests triggered by last year's presidential election, which the opposition and West say was rigged.

The Minsk-based Vyasna human rights center said in a statement that a new wave of searches occurred early in the morning on December 1 in the cities of Hrodna, Brest, Vitsebsk, Krychau, Rechytsa, and Mazyr, as well as other places in the country.

In the southeastern city of Mazyr, police confiscated books and posters from activist Uladzimer Tselepun after searching his apartment and cottage.

The homes of two activists in the eastern city of Vitsebsk, Uladzimer Kiyko and Mikalay Kachurets, were also searched. In another eastern city, Krychau, police detained journalist Syarhey Nyarouny after searching his apartment.

Officers from the Department for Financial Crimes Investigations in the eastern city of Mahilyou, meanwhile, detained journalist Valeria Lepeshava for questioning. No reason was given for the move, according to Vyasna.

Crisis In Belarus

Read our ongoing coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election, widely seen as fraudulent.

In the southeastern city of Homel, police briefly detained for questioning journalist Larysa Shchyrakova after confiscating her telephone, memory disks, computer hard drives, and equipment used for reporting. Shchyrakova was released after she refused to answer questions.

Also, in Homel, police searched the home of Vasil Palyakou, an activist of the opposition United Civic Party.

In the western city of Brest, police searched the home of journalist Alena Hnauk.

Tens of thousands of people have been detained, and human rights activists say more than 800 people are now in jail as political prisoners, while most opposition leaders have left the country fearing for their safety.

Many Western governments have refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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