When a police officer posted a video on YouTube complaining of rampant abuse in Russian law enforcement, it seemed like a lonely voice in a sea of social media.
Since then, three more officers have come forward with their own YouTube videos making similar accusations — and others are lining up to do the same.
In a country where the rule of law is weak and most traditional media are under government control, social media sites are gaining a role as a place where fed-up citizens can broadcast their grievances.
But in the case of the YouTube cops, things may not be as simple as they seem: The unusual burst of whistle-blowing follows pledges from the Kremlin to clean up Russia's notoriously corrupt police force — and some suspect the Internet campaign may even have sprung from within the halls of power.
A grainy low-resolution video posted last week showed a fair-haired, nervous-looking police officer sitting on a shabby couch saying he promised to jail an innocent man in return for a promotion.
Maj. Alexey Dymovsky, a disgruntled officer from the southern port city of Novorossiisk, started the trend with two YouTube pleas in which he said his bosses forced him to falsely report that unsolved cases had been cracked.
He also said he divorced twice because his wives could not cope with his long hours and low pay.
"I am fighting for the truth," he said, directly addressing Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. "I am a bit scared to address you and the whole country ... but I can't do it any other way."
Dymovsky's postings got 700,000 hits by Monday — the day when he was fired and threatened with a lawsuit for slander. However, the Interior Ministry ordered an investigation into his allegations, and Dymovsky's example quickly found followers.
By Thursday night, three more YouTube pleas decried abuses, trumped-up convictions and corruption.
In two separate clips, ex-deputy prosecutor Grigory Chekalin and former police Maj. Mikhail Yevseyev claimed two innocent men were sentenced to life in prison for a 2005 arson in the northwestern city of Ukhta that killed 25. Yevseyev also alleged Ukhta police fabricated charges against local businessmen in return for bribes from their rivals.
Both resigned after the defendants were convicted.
In another posting, Moscow traffic policeman Vadim Smirnov claimed he was forced to resign after joining a trade union.
The head of Moscow's Police Trade Union, Mikhail Pashkov, told The Associated Press at least another 10 policemen have asked him to help record and post their grievances online.
Russian police normally close ranks in the face of criticism — perhaps confident in their power after decades of authoritarian Soviet-era rule and prominence in the past decade, with the Kremlin placing law and order at the top of its priority list.
But police have come under growing scrutiny, facing public grumbling over corruption and concerns over horrific outbursts of violence. In April, a Moscow police precinct chief killed three people and wounded seven others in a shooting spree in a supermarket and on the street outside, according to authorities.
President Dmitry Medvedev, who has vowed to fight corruption and talked up the importance of the rule of law, praised police at a Kremlin reception in their honor Tuesday but called for "the most energetic measures to cleanse the ranks of the police and special services of unworthy personnel."
Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev said Friday that the Web postings were "part of the purification" and pledged to fight "chaos and indecency ... of certain police officers," the ITAR-Tass agency reported.
Medvedev's comments and the minister's attention have fueled speculation that high-level authorities may be behind the YouTube trend.
Human rights groups say the problem is systemic — that Russian police routinely use trumped-up charges, abuse, blackmail and torture. Media reported cases of enslavement of labor migrants by police, and Kremlin critics claimed police beat up or killed several opposition activists.
Some experts even suggested that the video postings were a scheme by police officials to distract attention from horrors such as the April killings.
"The whole story looks very much like a work of police PR," political analyst Alexei Mukhin told the Gazeta.ru online daily. "Dymovsky does not say anything new, but the Interior Ministry responds immediately, orders investigations, and nobody cares about how they will end."
Dymovsky said, however, that one of the reasons he posted his videos was a 2005 Interior Ministry decree ordering police to solve more crimes. The policy has long been criticized by rights activists and participants of police Internet forums, who say financial rewards and promotions are based on crime-fighting results that can be easily faked and manipulated.
"If there are no grave crimes, no explosives or weapons, (police officers) have to plant them, otherwise they will get sacked or have to bribe their way out," union leader Pashkov said. "This is a Stalinist-era decree."
The Internet remains just about the only uncensored medium accessible to Russians. About 40 million out of the country's population of 143 million use the Internet, mostly young city dwellers. Although broadband Internet access is available only in big cities, cell phones are widely used to spread video files.