A Russian prison warden denied reports of torture until he was caught torturing prisoners himself. We interviewed the journalist who broke the story.
At the end of September 2019, Alla Konstantinova wrote an article for the legal news source Mediazona that described a regular practice of torturing prisoners at Correctional Colony No. 9 (IK-9) in the journalist’s hometown of Petrozavodsk, Karelia. After the article was published, both Russia’s Investigative Committee and its Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) committed to investigating the prison. At the same time, prison warden Ivan Savelyev said he would sue Konstantinova and asked the Investigative Committee to investigate Konstantinova’s article for slander. On October 12, a video appeared online that appeared to show Savelyev beating a prisoner himself. On the morning of October 15, Konstantinova discovered that Savelyev and his deputy, Ivan Kovalyov, had been tracking her. She brought that information to the media as well. The press service for Karelia’s FSIN branch argued that the journalist’s assertions were “absurd” and that its employees had only “driven up to buy water” when Konstantinova encountered them. Meduza spoke with Konstantinova about the incident and her work more broadly.
How did you notice that you were being followed?
I have two dogs, and I walk them every day. On the corner of an intersection near my building, in the grocery store parking lot, I noticed a black SUV coming to a very abrupt stop. I literally only noticed it through my peripheral vision. I don’t know why, but I looked back and saw a familiar face: Ivan Kovalyov [the deputy warden of Correctional Colony No. 9] was in the passenger’s seat. Right then, it wasn’t very clear whether they were watching me from the car or not. But then Kovalyov got out of the car, took two steps, and looked in my direction. We made eye contact — I smiled at him and shifted my gaze to the driver of the car, who turned out to be the colony’s warden, Ivan Savelyev.
In the video [from the store’s external security cameras] there’s this moment where Kovalyov gets Savelyev’s attention and points at me, points out that I’m standing nearby. Savelyev also looked at me — there were these little glances. I smiled at him, too, and then I turned around and kept walking with my dogs.
Did you receive any threats from IK-9’s leadership after your article about torture in the colony was published?
No, there were no threats. The only was that after the press conference they invited everybody to [two days after the article’s publication] to say everything’s all right in the colony, Mr. Savelyev told me that he would be seeing me in court. But my sources did tell me that, sooner or later, something might happen. I’m the kind of person who prefers not to be paranoid. I wouldn’t say that I’m frightened or concerned right now in any serious way. I don’t know why they did it [followed me]. Maybe they wanted to scare me a little.
So you would stop dealing with torture in the colony?
I don’t know. It’s impossible to put yourself in someone else’s head, and I certainly have no idea what’s going on in theirs. Maybe they just think I’m writing about something else that has to do with IK-9. Maybe they’ve been hearing that I meet with former prisoners every day, and they tell me more and more about what happened to them.
After the article’s publication and Savelyev’s insistences that everything’s all right over there in the colony, I’ve been getting calls every day not just from Russia, but from other countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, from people who want to share what actually happens in IK-9. They were in the colony at various points in time. Practically every conversation starts with the phrase “I got to find out personally what kind of people Savelyev, Kovalyov, and their crew are.” They were the central figures in my article because people talk about them first, but then it turns out that there are actually a lot more employees at the colony who are involved in the beatings.
How did you start covering torture in IK-9?
The mother of one of the convicts wrote to me and said he was being harassed in the colony — he had gone missing and hadn’t called for two weeks. He had asked [his mother] to reach out to every possible human rights authority, the Social Monitoring Commission, and so on. She did that and called me as well. Some mutual acquaintances had recommended that she contact me as a journalist. After that, the topic started developing along a very fast chain reaction.
Are you still working on it?
Yes, as long as law enforcement agencies don’t issue a just decision about the colony’s leadership. As of now, I don’t know much about how the investigation is going — how many suspects there are, for example — but I’d like for every individual who participated in these atrocities to be held responsible. Many of the convicts say that the staff of Karelia’s FSIN branch couldn’t have not known about [the torture]. I haven’t been able to confirm that, but these conversations are ongoing.
Can Ivan Savelyev be considered an influential person in Petrozavodsk? Someone to be intimidated by?
Until people started writing about the torture, the only Google result for Savelyev was a single photograph from the press service of FSIN’s Karelia branch. I don’t know how influential he is. Here, people tend to be afraid; they tend to exaggerate various individuals’ reputations. In many ways, that causes problems. He’s a normal person despite the high position he held until recently (Savelyev has been placed on leave — Meduza).
Do you plan to start looking into the situation at other prison colonies in Karelia?
Right now, I’ve got a lot of work to do on No. 9. I’m not sure whether to say “fortunately” or “unfortunately.” But my focus is on No. 9, and I’m only working on that colony. I hope this will help change society’s preconceived attitude to places that aren’t so remote. For some reason, it’s not accepted here to talk about the people who are doing time in there, about their problems, about violations of their rights. When I started working on this topic, I was very surprised that even among the people I know, in my circles, there’s this opinion that a prison colony isn’t a vacation home, that you have to be cruel to criminals. I understand that this [attitude toward violating prisoners’ human rights] appears to be a deeper problem.
Even high-status prisoners have encountered human rights violations in prison colonies — former Dagestani People’s Council Deputy Magomed Magomedov, for example.
Judging by what convicts have told me, there’s a wide range of harassment that they apply at IK-9 depending on the act the person committed. [Anzor] Gubashev [who was convicted of killing opposition politician Boris Nemtsov] said that they don’t beat him even though he’s serving his sentence in the penal section of the colony. All the other prisoners who spoke with me mentioned that most of the beatings happen in the penal section. Anzor Gubashev has insisted that they don’t beat him — they torture him with cold temperatures and force him to suffer psychologically through religious restrictions [by preventing him from practicing Islam].
It’s no secret that when somebody goes into a prison colony, they dig through that person’s background: What they’re in prison for, who they were on the outside. I think the way people are treated depends on where they’re from. If it’s just a simple guy from a rural area, that person will have a higher chance of being beaten. That’s how it seems to me, but I can’t prove it at all.
Does the Karelian media work on the issue of torture in prison colonies, or is that something that only interests federal media outlets?
A lot of them have caught on to this wave. Not all, but a lot. It used to be mostly reprints of Mediazona and Current Time, but now people are producing their own stories, and journalists have been finding their own sources: Former convicts and former employees who have also reported [torture]. Slowly but surely, this topic is branching outward.
Translation by Hilah Kohen