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Speak Out? Are You Crazy?

In a throwback to Soviet times, Russians who cross the powerful are increasingly hustled into mental asylums, rights activists say.

May 30, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

CHEBOKSARY, Russia — Albert Imendayev collected the signatures he needed to run for the legislature last fall in this city on the banks of the Volga River. He met with supporters, prepared his campaign material. He would have made the ballot had it not been for one thing: He was hauled off to a mental asylum.

Only days before he was required to appear at the local election commission to finalize his candidacy, an investigator from the prosecutor's office met Imendayev at the courthouse with three police officers. They kept him locked up until a judge could be found to sign the order committing him for a psychiatric evaluation.

"The hearing took place, and I was taken straight off to the asylum," said the businessman and human rights activist. By the time he was released nine days later, the election filing deadline had passed and he was out of the race.

Imendayev's act of insanity was filing a series of legal complaints against local officials, police, prosecutors and judges, alleging corruption, violation of court procedures and cronyism -- charges that are far from rare in today's Russia. The prosecutor, a frequent target of Imendayev's darts, called his behavior "paranoia."

Through much of the Cold War, the Soviet Union waged a chilling psychiatric war against political dissidents. Critics of the communist authorities found themselves locked for months or years behind the barred windows of state asylums, drugged into tranquillity and prevented from talking to lawyers or family.

The end of the Soviet Union saw the adoption of laws that raised legal protections for psychiatric patients to international standards, granting potential mental patients guarantees of legal representation and commitment only on the orders of a court. But Imendayev's trip behind hospital walls in September was, human rights activists say, one of many signs that punitive psychiatry has not disappeared.

"This has only just resurfaced in recent years, and for a time we couldn't even believe it was happening. But now it seems quite clear that such abuses are on the rise, and that this is a trend," said Yury Savenko, president of the Independent Psychiatric Assn., an advocacy group of professional psychiatrists that has pushed for mental health reforms in Russia.

The ranks of the "insane" over the last three years have included women divorcing powerful husbands, people locked in business disputes and citizens, like Imendayev, who have become a nuisance by filing numerous legal challenges against local politicians and judges or lodging appeals against government agencies to uphold their rights.

Unlike during the Soviet era, when an all-powerful KGB locked up those who challenged the foundations of the regime, there appears to be no systematic federal repression of dissidents through the mental health system. Instead, citizens today fall victim to regional authorities in localized disputes, or to private antagonists who have the means, as so many in Russia do, to bribe their way through the courts.

"People are being institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals unlawfully, and on the most diverse grounds," the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights concluded in a 2004 study. "Not only did punitive psychiatry exist during the Soviet period, and not only does it exist today, unfortunately there are no grounds to hope that it will disappear in the foreseeable future."

In another case here in Cheboksary, a four-term opposition deputy in the regional parliament, Igor Molyakov, spent six months in jail on libel charges in 2004. While incarcerated, he was ordered committed for psychiatric hospitalization after a judge agreed with government lawyers that Molyakov's repeated writings about corruption among local authorities reflected an outlook so "somber" that it might constitute a "mental disorder."

In St. Petersburg, Ivan Ivannikov, who lectured for 38 years at the State University of Economics and Finance, found himself wrestled to the ground, handcuffed and dragged to the city psychiatric hospital in December 2003 after a protracted dispute with a well-connected contractor over repairs to his apartment. An influential state psychiatrist signed the recommendation for commitment without ever having met Ivannikov, deciding that his multiple legal complaints against the contractor constituted an "obsession" with "revenge." He was released after 60 days.

In Moscow, Natalya Kuznetsova was fired from her job at the federal audit chamber not long after charging that $140 million had been siphoned out of the federal budget in 2001 and 2002. A subsequent set of quarrels with her supervisors led to her firing, and when she filed suit seeking disability compensation, a state psychologist reported she had a mental disability.

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