Image caption, Sergey Savelyev is seeking asylum in France after he leaked videos of alleged torture in Russian jails

Sergey Savelyev doesn't look like someone who spent eight years in a Russian prison and secretly gathered videos of apparent torture and beatings of inmates.

Slight in stature, the 31-year-old Belarusian says he can now sleep a bit better, for the first time in weeks. He has sought asylum in France, having fled Russia fearing for his safety.

He now freely admits he was the whistleblower who handed over more than 1,000 videos to Russian human rights group Gulagu.net.

The videos, which he obtained while working in a prison office during his jail term, caused an outcry in Russia when they emerged online earlier this month.

Russian authorities have since said they have opened criminal investigations into alleged torture and sexual assaults in jails and fired several senior prison officials.

  • Russia investigates prison torture allegations

Gulagu.net said the videos not only documented beatings, rape and the humiliation of inmates, but also proved the endemic nature of abuse within the prison system.

Image source, Gulagu.net/YouTubeImage caption, More than a thousand videos were leaked to Gulagu.net

The prison service has been approached for comment.

Choice between life and death

Mr Savelyev started sharing the videos with human rights activists after his release in February this year. Over the course of several months, he shared hundreds of files.

Last month, he was stopped at St Petersburg airport as he was travelling to Novosibirsk. At the check-in desk, men in civilian clothing started questioning him.

They said they knew all about his correspondence with Vladimir Osechkin, the head of Gulagu.net.

"They told me that they had been watching me for six months," Mr Savelyev said. "They threatened to put me away for treason for 20 years."

He said the men warned him he would "die very quickly" in jail. "First, you will confess everything, and then you will be found dead in a cell," he quoted them as saying.

The alternative, Mr Savelyev was told, was for him to co-operate with the investigation, and admit that he had been put up to gathering evidence "discrediting the Russian prison service" by the "foreign-funded" Gulagu.net.

In that case, he would get away with only four years inside.

"The real choice was between life and death. I chose life," Mr Savelyev says.

Image caption, Mr Savelyev says he was convicted of a drug-related offence in 2013

Mr Savelyev says he signed some papers agreeing to co-operate with the authorities and was allowed to go.

"They probably thought I wouldn't dare to escape," he said. But escape he did.

He took a minibus from Russia into Belarus and then travelled via Tunisia to France. Once in the transit zone of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, he sought help from the police.

'They just need to break you'

In 2013, Mr Savelyev was convicted of a drug-related offence and sentenced to nine years in prison. He avoids details but says his case was "sad and common". He was sent to a jail in the Russian city of Saratov, notorious for allegations of prisoner abuse.

He alleges that he was severely beaten as soon as he arrived. "They just need to break you, to show who is boss," he said.

Later he was lucky to be spotted as someone who could use a PC and was brought into the prison office to work in an administrative role.

"It was much better than biding time between meals and trying to keep my head down," he said.

One of his tasks was looking through video recordings from prison guards' body cameras. He soon realised that while many of the recordings were benign and simply documented the guards' rounds, some appeared to show violent abuse of inmates and were deeply disturbing.

'You can't imagine what it's like'

Mr Savelyev alleges that torture was usually carried out by other "specially trained" inmates and filmed on cameras handed out by the guards. Part of his job was to delete some of the videos, while some, he alleges, "were sent somewhere else, perhaps to higher levels".

Mr Savelyev says he never saw this kind of violent abuse in person, but the videos shocked him profoundly.

Image source, Gulagu.net/YouTubeImage caption, One video appears to show an naked man being held by a guard

"We all know that there are beatings and rape inside, but you can't imagine what it's like until you see it with your own eyes," he said.

It took him some time to process what was going on and to figure out what to do next.

"I saw one video, then another one, then a third and a fourth, a fifth. Then I decided I would start copying them."

Initially, he didn't have a clear idea of what to do with the videos but knew he had to save them. In 2019 he decided to gather the videos and later hand them over to a human rights organisation.

While working in the prison office, Mr Savelyev also alleges he saw the numerous complaints that came in about the mistreatment of prisoners, which he says made him realise how widespread the abuse was.

The BBC has put Mr Savelyev's allegations to the prison service but, at the time of publication, is yet to receive a reply.

Image caption, Mr Savelyev said he wants the guards accused of torture held accountable

In early 2021, Mr Savelyev became aware of Gulagu.net and heard Vladimir Osechkin speak on his YouTube channel about jail violence, including in Mr Savelyev's prison.

It made Mr Savelyev realise that there may be others working on the inside, leaking information to the NGO. He knew his video evidence would serve a purpose, too.

Reflecting on the furore sparked by his leaks and the investigation by the Russian prison service, Mr Savelyev said it was not not enough to fire some guards or move them to other jails.

He wanted them to "explain why they did what they did". "Only then would I feel better," he said.