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Marsel Amirov

A Russian inmate who complained to a watchdog group about being tortured, raped, and humiliated by prison guards said he was retaliated against, and went on a 22-day hunger strike in protest, according to his lawyer and relatives.

The claims by Marsel Amirov, who is serving a 14-year sentence on a murder conviction, were the latest in a series of revelations and allegations pointing to widespread abuse of inmates in Russia's sprawling prison system.

Earlier this year, a rights group began publishing videos that were secretly taken from prison computer networks by a former inmate at another facility. Those videos have struck a chord in Russian society, shining a spotlight on torture in jails and prisons, a problem largely ignored by the authorities.

In November, Amirov, an inmate at a prison in the Kirov region, 1,000 kilometers east of Moscow, met with a government-sanctioned public commission charged with monitoring human rights.

He told one member that he had been tortured: He said that his head was pushed repeatedly into a bucket of human excrement and that he had been beaten, strangled, and raped with a mop handle, according to a written statement he provided later to his lawyer.

Amirov was then transferred to a nearby prison medical ward after the visit, but 11 days later, on November 30, he was sent back to the main Kirov facility where he has been held since May 2018. He told his lawyer later that he was again tortured by guards and pressured to recant his earlier statement.

He then went on a hunger strike, resulting in his transfer back to the medical facility on December 13.

Ten days later, while in the prison medical facility, Amirov resumed his hunger strike. He later told his lawyer that he was again punished for his actions, and placed in a special punishment cell that was rat-infested and unheated.

On December 23, while in the prison medical facility, he met defense lawyer Tatyana Shabanova, and provided her with the written statement documenting the earlier abuse.

"At first, when I saw him, he was like a wounded animal," Shabanova told RFE/RL. "He looked around, he shuddered, he was afraid of everything, his eyes were haunted. But after realizing that he was not being left [in danger], he calmed down a bit."

Amirov had previously written letters to relatives in which he reported on what he described as the inhuman treatment of inmates. "I will say one thing: For the [prison guards], prisoners are not people, but just animals that you can do whatever you want with. And there is no one to complain to," Amirov's sister, Lilia, told RFE/RL.

The regional division of the federal prison service did not immediately respond to requests for comment from RFE/RL.

The Kirov prison administration and its practices have already been under scrutiny by the regional Investigative Committee for alleged inmate abuses. However, the investigation found no evidence of inmate abuse.

Andrei Babushkin, a member of the government commission who met with Amirov in November, has publicly called for Amirov to be given proper medical treatment, and for prison officials to be investigated for abuse.

For years, human rights activists have warned of and documented the problem of torture and rights violations at Russian prisons, a system that is a legacy of Soviet-era prison and labor camp practices.

But little has been done in the way of reform, and prison guards and officials are rarely punished or prosecuted. At his annual press conference last week, President Vladimir Putin said prison torture is a “world problem” and suggested without evidence that it is no worse in Russia than in the United States or France.

The leak of videos, which was published by the group Gulagu.net, prompted federal investigators to open a probe at one facility, in the central Saratov region.

In a rare case of prison officials being punished, the federal prison service in October announced it had fired five senior prison officials, including the director of the prison where the alleged abuse captured on video took place.

Written by Mike Eckel based on reporting by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities
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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"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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