‘The guards say they'll seek revenge’ The lawyer who outed the torture of a prisoner flees Russia, fearing for her family
On June 20, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a 10-minute video showing guards at a prison in Yaroslavl brutally torturing an inmate named Evgeny Makarov. The journalists got the footage from Makarov’s lawyer, Irina Biryukova. Three days later, the media discovered that she had fled the country, after learning of threats against her. Meduza correspondent Irina Kravtsova spoke to Biryukova to find out more about the case and why she had to leave Russia.
How did you obtain the video?
I received it from my source in early July. I won’t say how exactly I got it. That’s privileged.
Do you have any idea why the guards recorded it on video?
In general, the guards are required by regulations and the law to wear body cams and record everything that happens while on duty. In most cases, they don’t record anything, and if they do end up recording something, it usually isn’t saved. When they’re asked for the video records, they claim the body cam was malfunctioning.
We were very surprised, too, that they recorded this and saved the footage. Either they were overconfident, not too bright, or they thought it wouldn’t ever leak because there were so many colleagues taking part in this outrage that they’d just cover for each other. But it got out.
The video that was published by Novaya Gazeta is 10 minutes long. Is that the same footage you received, or did you edit it down at all?
It’s the same video I received. I asked Evgeny [Makarov] if there was anything else that happened that day, in addition to what was captured in the video, but he can’t remember because he lost consciousness four times during the beating.
Warning! The following footage contains disturbing scenes of violence. Viewer discretion is advised.
At what moment did you decide to go public with the video?
Immediately after the internal audit. It was clear that I simply couldn’t handle this on my own.
Did you try to contact the Yaroslavl branch of the Federal Penitentiary System on your own?
No. I realized that telling the detectives about this video would have been like bringing the sheep to the wolves — the video itself being the sheep.
Have you spoken to Makarov since the video was published?
No. I last spoke to him shortly before. We discussed everything and he consented to publishing it. He was thrilled that the footage still existed, and he asked only that we publish it as soon as possible.
Do you know why police have only charged six of the 17 people who took part in torturing Makarov?
While we’ve been talking, I just got word that it’s already up to eight. [A note to readers: at the time of this writing, Russia’s Investigative Committee had only charged six people officially.] I think the thing is that they have to decide whether or not to arrest them. If the Investigative Committee says it’s going to arrest them, then they have to come to court, and the court physically can’t process 12 cases in a day. So right now they’re proportioning out the information about the arrests.
Why did you decide to leave Russia?
I didn’t want to leave, but we made this decision collectively. The fact is that the safety of my family, my colleagues at the “Public Verdict” foundation, and journalists at Novaya Gazeta demanded this. That’s why my family and I left Russia the day after the video was published.
Were you threatened?
Directly, of course not. Everyone knows that would go too far. I would have gone public immediately with any threats. But my source in the Yaroslavl region, with whom I’ve been working for more than a year and who’s never misinformed me even once, told me that the guards who took part in the beating (and even some others) were talking about getting revenge, including against me. They said Public Verdict is the enemy, and that kind of thing. I brought this information to my colleagues, and we decided that I should leave for now.
I changed my phone number immediately and took several other security measures, which I’d rather not share.
Will you remain abroad for long?
I hope not. I’m planning to participate in Makarov’s case as his attorney. My absence in Russia won’t affect my participation in this case in any way.
You’ve said you requested state protection. Do you think they’ll help you?
Yes. This weekend, I sent a statement to [Investigative Committee chief Alexander] Bastrykin about getting state protection for myself and my family. My family and I won’t return to Russia until this matter is reviewed. But I think our request will be reviewed quickly, because urgent measures are required here. Maybe we’ll be given protection and moved to another region with a new identity.