20 years under Putin: a timeline

In October, several events simultaneously highlighted the cruelty and illegitimacy of the Russian judicial and penitentiary systems. The Gulagu.net human rights advocacy project published video recordings from the archives of the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) that show the torture and rape of Russian prison colony inmates. The materials were provided by whistleblower Sergei Savelyev, a Belarussian programmer and former FSIN prisoner, who is already facing criminal charges. Pressure is also increasing on journalist Ivan Safronov, a Russian citizen accused of treason. Civic activist Vyacheslav Yegorov has been convicted under the controversial “Dadin article” of the Russian Criminal Code.


Upper row: Sergei Savelyev; lower row: Ivan Safronov (left), Vyacheslav Yegorov.


Sergei Savelyev: exposure of the Russian “torture conveyer belt”

  • The events of this past October have once again testified to how Russia’s repressive system reacts to the exposure of its criminal mechanisms.
  • In the past month, thenet human rights advocacy project published a series of video recordings which capture the torture and rape of Russian prison colony inmates.
  • net was given access to the secret video archive by former inmate Sergei Savelyev, a Belarusian citizen. He received access to the archive when working as a system administrator in a FSIN tuberculosis hospital (OTB-1) in Saratov Oblast. He was administrating local network and video surveillance cameras, taking care of paperwork, and issuing dash cameras to employees and cooperative inmates to record abuse against other prisoners.
  • Subsequently, high-ranking FSIN and Federal Security Service (FSB) employees used these recordings to blackmail, force collaboration, and extort testimonies.
  • Savelyev managed to collect around two terabytes of data (video, photographs, and documents) that confirm the systematic nature of torture in colonies and temporary detention centers not just in Saratov Oblast, but other regions as well; he took these data with him—first away from the colony, then away from Russia.
  • In the programmer’s own words, he “simply copied saved materials [he] was supposed to delete […] Nothing should have remained on the computers. Those materials were not meant for storage in this institution in general. What was meant to be transferred ‘upstairs’ was recorded on a flash drive and taken—as confirmation that some ‘special actions’ had been carried out. As a means for subsequent blackmail. As a guarantee that a targeted individual will do what he is required to do,” he explained in an interview with Meduza.
  • Savelyev was convicted in 2013 on charges of drug transportation and sale (Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code; he believes that he was set up by police). During the arrest, he was severely beaten.
  • After release from prison, he reached out to the director of the Gulagu.net project, Vladimir Osechkin, and went home to Minsk.
  • Security officials identified Savelyev as the Gulagu.net informer in September while transferring from Minsk to Novosibirsk in St. Petersburg. For several hours, he was interrogated at Pulkovo airport. “I was offered two options: either collaborate, surrender all the archives, begin working against Osechkin together with [the security services], and go to prison for four years for revealing state classified information; or, if I tried to hide and make a noise, I would get 10 to 20 years for espionage,” the programmer said .
  • “They [security officials] were not interested in the contents of the archive, the terrible footage that it contained, how many people have been tortured, who is behind it, who gave the orders and who performed the torture. Those questions simply were not asked. They were only interested in how the information leak was allowed to happen and in the archive’s location. The only thing they want is to prevent future leaks. And to gag me,” Savelyev added.
  • After the Pulkovo incident, Savelyev discreetly made it to France, where he applied for asylum.
  • In late October Savelyev was reported to have been put on the federal wanted list and arrested in absentia. He is facing charges of illicit access to computer information (Article 272, Section II of the Criminal Code).
  • “Instead of appreciation or a simple ‘thank you’ to the whistleblower who exposed the torture ‘conveyer belt,’ they put him on the wanted list and try to arrest him and bring him back to Russia by any means. Russian security officials incriminate themselves,” Gulagu.net’s Telegram channel reported.
  • The project has also begun to publish the so-called Savelyev list—a list of officials of OTB-1 and the Saratov branches of the FSIN and FSB that have been complicit in torture.
  • After the publication of the classified video materials, the Investigative Committee initiated a number of criminal proceedings under the articles of sexual assault and abuse of office; several high-ranking employees of the FSIN’s Saratov branch were fired.
  • The Gulagu.net project, which exposes corruption and torture in the Russian penitentiary system, was created in 2011. In May of this year, it stopped operatinginside Russia, and in July the communications watchdog Roskomnadzor blocked access to its website for Russian users. According to Osechkin, the FSIN had been trying to get it blocked for several years.


The case of Ivan Safronov: the FSB strengthens its grip

  • As the investigation into the case of Ivan Safronov winds down, security officials have increased pressure on the former journalist for Russian newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti, and advisor to the head of Roscosmos, who is facing treason charges (Article 275 of the Russian Criminal Code).
  • On October 4, the Moscow City Court extended his arrest until January 7, 2022.
  • Safronov has been in custody since July 2020. Up until recently, he was accused of transferring information on military-technical collaboration (allegedly between Russia and an unnamed Middle Eastern country) to the Czech Republic’s special services; however, the investigation provided no concrete evidence of the journalist’s guilt.
  • On November 1, it was reported that the investigation had been completed. Another episode has appeared in the case: according to the FSB, Safronov provided political scientist Demuri Voronin with information on the activities of the Russian armed forces in Syria, for which he received a reward of 248 USD. Voronin (arrested in February 2021 on treason charges), in turn, forwarded this information to representatives of the German Federal Investigative Service and Zurich University in Switzerland.
  • Safronov’s colleagues link his persecution to his journalistic activity: he covered the work of the military-industrial complex, as well as the space industry, and never had access to classified information.
  • In October it was also reported that Alexander Chaban, an FSB investigator in charge of Safronov’s case, demanded that the administration of the Lefortovo detention center, where the journalist is kept, confiscated all of his incoming and outgoing correspondence, including letters to and from his attorneys.
  • Safronov’s defense argues that the correspondence ban is illegal: “The law only permits censorship, and only selective censorship, that applies to each letter individually. Each letter must be checked—whether it contains prohibited information or not—and be forwarded or confiscated afterwards. In Ivan’s case, censorship is applied to all letters, they are simply confiscated. That is not provided for by the law.”
  • The case against Ivan Safronov, like other treason cases, is heard behind closed doors. During his time in the detention center, he was not allowed a single family visit or phone call; in particular, he was not allowed to call his mother on her birthday. The detained journalist could speak to his family only during court hearings (during brief recesses when relatives are allowed to enter the courtroom) and via letters.
  • It was reported that Chaban offered Safronov a plea bargain in exchange for a phone call to his mother. Ivan refused it.
  • In early November, Safronov was placed in a disciplinary cell for an attempt to set up a television antenna in his cell: the journalist had glued it to the wall with sticky tapes from sausage packaging.
  • Safronov’s case is also unprecedented in terms of pressure exerted on the defense team. For example, one of his attorneys, Dmitry Talantov, said that investigator Chaban forbade him from making notes while reviewing the case materials, which run to more than a thousand pages: “The investigator simply does not allow me to grab a pen and a piece of paper. And if I manage to take one harmless note, he rips the sheet out of my hand and adds it to the ‘secret’ notebook, which he then locks in a safe.”
  • A significant portion of the case materials is classified, and attorneys are not allowed to take their notes out of the investigator’s office. However, the defense has the right to make notes that do not contain any classified information. Talantov filed a legal complaint against Chaban’s actions.
  • Additionally, in late October, Ivan Pavlov, former head of Team 29, a human rights advocacy organization, who defended Safronov but was forced to leave Russia, was placed on the wanted list.
  • Earlier in April, Pavlov was accused of disclosing preliminary investigation data (Article 310 of the Russian Criminal Code). According to security officials, he gave a copy of the indictment order against Safronov to Vedomosti and also informed the news media that a secret witness had appeared in the case.
  • The court chose a ban on certain actions as a pretrial restriction measure for Pavlov. He was forbidden to use all means of communication, as well as to speak with his client and witnesses in his own case.
  • Pavlov is convinced that the case against him was initiated and is fully controlled by the FSB. “First, they had to make an effort to ensure that the person leaves the country. After he is gone, they have to ensure he stays away, that he doesn’t come back. Therefore, they need to put him on the wanted list so that he knows that, if he comes back, he will be arrested at the airport or any border crossing, escorted to a specially designated place, and, maybe, he will not come back from there,” he said during an Echo Moskvy
  • In July, Roskomnadzor blocked the Team 29 website at the request of the prosecutor’s office; the organization consequently announced its closure.
  • Team 29 lawyers specialize in cases related to the freedom of information (information freedom is guaranteed by Article 29 of the Russian Constitution) and state security (Chapter 29 of the Russian Criminal Code).
  • Besides Ivan Safronov, Pavlov’s clients have included scientists Viktor Kudryavtsev and Valeriy Mitko, Inter RAO top manager Karina Tsurkan (read more on her case here) and others wrongfully accused of treason or espionage. Additionally, Pavlov managed the case of the designation of Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation as an extremist organization.


Vyacheslav Yegorov: a real sentence for a “garbage protest”

  • Another civic activist has been sentenced to real prison time in Russia for repeated violation of the rules on holding public events (Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code, known as the “Dadin article”).
  • On October 14, the court sentenced Vyacheslav Yegorov to one year and three months in a penal colony. Yegorov is a member of a group of residents of Kolomna, a city near Moscow, who rallied against the expansion of a local landfill back in 2018.
  • The case is based on four administrative protocols issued against him for allegedly violating the legislation on holding “mass events” (Article 20.2 of the Administrative Offenses Code). In May 2018, Yegorov was sentenced to 30 hours of mandatory community service; in June this year, he was arrested for 36 hours for participating in an event that, according to the police, obstructed public transport; and in August, he was sentenced to 25 hours of community service for organizing an unsanctioned rally.
  • The fourth protocol, which became the basis for the initiation of criminal charges, was drawn up in December 2018 after Yegorov posted a message online calling for his readers to come to an open-court hearing on the case against politicians Dmitry and Gennady Gudkov for organizing a rally against the construction of a waste incinerating plant.
  • Yegorov was arrested in January 2019. He spent almost six months under house arrest, then the pretrial restriction measure was changed to a ban on certain actions, and later to recognizance not to leave the country.
  • Attorney Maria Eismont told Mediazona what should be understood about Yegorov’s case. “All others [charged under Article 212.1 of the Criminal Code] were arrested at rallies in which they had actually participated, to which they had urged others to come to. That does not make their cases justified in any way, but this doesn’t even apply to Yegorov.” Eismont believes that three of the four episodes in Yegorov’s case involved provocateurs.
  • Yegorov’s case took an unprecedentedly long time to hear: three years passed from the start of the proceedings to the final court hearing.
  • Memorial Human Rights Center recognized Yegorov as a political prisoner, highlighting that his persecution is not just politically motivated, but also contradicts the stance of the Russian Constitutional Court. In 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that having administrative violations on one’s record should not automatically lead to a conviction; the prosecution must prove that the actions of the alleged violator posed a real threat to the health of citizens, property, or civic order.
  • According to the OVD-Info, Yegorov is the third Russian citizen who received a real prison sentence under the controversial article; the first two were activists Ildar Dadin (his sentence was annulled by the Supreme Court) and Konstantin Kotov.
  • Article 212.1, which was added to the Criminal Code in 2014, is used by the authorities as a tool of intimidation against opposition voices. Human rights advocates call it unlawful and unconstitutional: it does not just limit the freedom of peaceful assembly, but effectively doubles the liability for the same actions: first, administrative, then criminal (which can lead to a prison sentence of up to five years).


Text translation: Elizaveta Agarkova.