Lawyer who fled Russia after leaking torture video feared 'revenge'

A human-rights lawyer who fled Russia after leaking shocking video of an inmate being viciously beaten by prison guar...

Posted: Jul 25, 2018 4:44 PM
Updated: Jul 25, 2018 4:44 PM

A human-rights lawyer who fled Russia after leaking shocking video of an inmate being viciously beaten by prison guards said she took flight after being warned of plans to "get revenge" against her.

In the first interview she gave after fleeing, Irina Biryukova of the Public Verdict advocacy group told CNN why she and her family left Russia.

"My source who I worked on this with warned me that some of the prison employees who have already been detained, and some who didn't take part in the beating but who work in this prison, made threats about the organization I work for and also personally against me," Biryukova said.

The disturbing 10-minute video, which was recorded in June 2017, according to Biryukova, but has only now come to light, shows a male prisoner being pinned down on a table while being methodically beaten and abused by uniformed guards at the IK-1 prison in Yaroslavl, about 200 miles from Moscow.

According to an official probe into the incident, prison employees delivered multiple blows "with their hands, feet and unidentified objects to the prisoner's torso and limbs."

The video shows a group of guards taking turns repeatedly punching and beating the prisoner as he screams for mercy.

Biryukova said prison employees beat the man "a lot" after he started making complaints about being mistreated. "In short, they beat him so he wouldn't complain. It's a vicious circle, he complained because they beat him and they beat him so he wouldn't complain," she said.

Arrests made

Russian police say they have arrested at least six guards employed at the Yaroslavl prison and have confirmed that several more suspects at the facility are under investigation.

Zavolzhsky Yaroslavl court heard guilty pleas on Wednesday from three suspects, state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

"Unfortunately these types of beatings are not uncommon in Russia," Biryukova said.

"It happens so often that even officials from the federal penitentiary service don't hide it," she added.

But the video of the beating, which was first reported by Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and went viral online, appears to have spurred the authorities into action.

Russia's federal prison authority issued a statement condemning the behavior of the guards, saying it discredited the service, and promising a nationwide review of prisoner treatment.

"Soon a commission will be set up across Russia to conduct checks into all cases where prison authorities employed physical force and special means over the past year," the statement said.

The announcement came as details emerged of yet another incident of alleged prisoner abuse in Russia.

Investigators say they have arrested a prison guard in the western Bryansk region for "using violence and special security means that limited a convict's ability to move."

The guard "bound [the inmate's] face with cloth, as a result of which the latter died of asphyxiation," investigators said in a statement.

'No justice'

Such arrests are seen as rare, however. Biryukova, who said she has been a lawyer for 13 years, said that "there is practically no justice in Russia."

"It's very hard to fight against the authorities. When there are civil cases, when one person fights against another, then it's possible to do something, but if it's against the authorities, especially the investigative organs, and they need to put you away, then they will put you away," she said.

The outcry over the video and the threats against the lawyer have unleashed a barrage of criticism including from Amnesty International which is calling on the Russian authorities to "promptly investigate in an independent and impartial manner the threats against Irina and the allegations of torture."

The former investor-turned-activist Bill Browder also tweeted that the video of the beating was one of "the most disturbing he had ever seen," saying that it highlighted how the Magnitsky Act -- a law the US passed to punish human-rights abusers -- is "so important." Sergey Magnitsky was a Russian accountant who exposed Russia's largest tax fraud and was later jailed and died in a Moscow detention center.

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