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Still Breaking the Rules

July 16, 1989

Despite assurances over the last few years to its own people and to the international psychiatric community that it planned to introduce major reforms in its mental-health programs, the Soviet Union continues to imprison and abuse political and religious dissidents in its psychiatric hospitals.

That is the finding of a team of American mental-health experts who toured Soviet psychiatric wards and interviewed patients over a two-week period earlier this year. Their report comes little more than three months after Amnesty International similarly concluded that, despite some limited improvement, Soviet psychiatric hospitals continue to a great extent to function as punitive institutions.

That conclusion is important, coming at a time when the Soviet Union is seeking readmittance to membership in the World Psychiatric Assn. In 1977, that body condemned the Soviets for intolerable misuses of psychiatry, including imprisoning healthy persons in mental institutions and deliberately inflicting physical and mental pain on inmates. Six years later the Soviets were forced to withdraw from the association in the face of threatened suspension, all the while denying the charges that had been lodged against them.

Since then, though, many of those same charges have been repeated in the Soviet press. In 1987, for example, Komsomolskaya Pravda informed its readers that "there is lawlessness" in the practice of Soviet psychiatry, including arbitrary diagnosis and commitment of patients, corrupt doctors and excessive use of medication. Komsomolskaya Pravda was reporting on conditions encountered by ordinary Russians. For political prisoners locked up in mental institutions run by the Interior Ministry--meaning the secret police--conditions were infinitely worse.

Since then new laws have been drafted to control psychiatric malpractice. Despite that, Dr. Loren H. Roth, the leader of the U.S. study team has told a congressional committee that "patients are (still) denied basic rights, are apparently subject to punitive use of medication and (are) fearful of retaliation."

As recently as last month a Soviet paper reported that a local Communist Party leader had ordered the forced hospitalization of a timber worker for expressing "undesirable" political ideas. Interviews by the visiting American delegation found political dissidents were locked up in mental institutions on the basis of such absurd diagnoses as "delusions of reformism" and "anti-Soviet thoughts."

Last year there seemed to be some indications that mental institutions controlled for decades by the KGB, and where the greatest abuses against political prisoners occurred, would be turned over to the Ministry of Health. So far, though, there are no signs that this has happened. The best evidence is that conditions in Soviet mental institutions continue to violate minimum international professional standards. So long as that remains true, it would be irresponsible and unacceptable for the World Psychiatric Assn. to welcome the Soviet Union back into its ranks.

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