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Dissidents still sent to asylums, Russia activists say

August 12, 2007|Alex Rodriguez | Chicago Tribune

MURMANSK, RUSSIA — Heavy sedatives keep Larisa Arap languishing in a woozy haze at a mental asylum, the victim not of a troubled mind, her family says, but of a Soviet-era practice that continues to muzzle and punish dissent in today's Russia.

This summer, Arap, an activist with former chess champion Garry Kasparov's opposition movement, co-wrote an article that alleged abusive practices at local psychiatric clinics. When Arap appeared at a Murmansk clinic to pick up a routine medical certificate in July, a doctor called police and had her taken to a local asylum.

The doctors handling Arap's case have made it clear why they want her committed to a mental institution, says Arap's daughter, Taisiya.

"One of the doctors asked whether I thought it was normal to write such things," Taisiya Arap said.

"She said, 'It's not possible to write such things. It's forbidden.' "

The Soviet Union routinely locked up dissidents in asylums, a practice that attracted worldwide condemnation because of the protests of Andrei Sakharov and other human rights activists.

Today, 16 years after the Soviet collapse, authorities are increasingly returning to psychiatry to suppress political opponents or punish activists, according to human rights organizations and other watchdog groups.

The trend reflects a government that has yet to fully divest itself from a Soviet way of thinking and governing, says Yury Savenko, president of the Independent Psychiatric Assn. of Russia.

"We're returning to this Soviet scenario when psychiatric institutions are used as punitive instruments," Savenko said. "I call this not even punitive psychiatry but police psychiatry, when the main aim is to protect the state rather than to treat sick people."

Russian law allows authorities to commit someone to a psychiatric institution if the person represents a danger to himself or others, or is incapable of caring for himself. Ultimately, a judge must approve the forced placement of someone in an asylum.

In practice, however, judges routinely accept the psychiatric evaluation submitted by local authorities without question, and rarely allow the individual to submit an independent psychiatric evaluation, Savenko says.

Marina Trutko, a 43-year-old human rights lawyer from Dubna, a small city about 70 miles north of Moscow, quarreled with a city judge in court in 2002 and was forcibly hospitalized at a local mental institution for several days.

She challenged the court's actions and was committed for psychiatric treatment again in 2004 and once more last year, when she spent six weeks at a mental health clinic outside Moscow.

"I still get threats from the Dubna court," Trutko said. "For them, I'm a thorn in their side. As a human rights lawyer, I win too many cases. I take on 150 cases a year, and most of them I win."

Larisa Arap crossed a line with Murmansk authorities when she co-wrote an article called "Madhouse" that appeared in a Kasparov movement newspaper, alleging the mistreatment of children and the use of electroshock therapy at area psychiatric clinics.

She said she had observed these abuses during a monthlong stay at a clinic in 2004, during which she received treatment for stress.

On July 5, Arap appeared at Dr. Marina Rekish's office to pick up a medical certificate needed to renew her driver's license. Russian driver's license renewals require annual certificates from a doctor and a psychiatrist stating that the applicant is physically and mentally capable of driving.

Last year, Rekish issued Arap the certificate without hesitation, says Elena Vasilyeva, head of the Murmansk branch of Kasparov's pro-democratic movement called Other Russia.

This time, however, Rekish had a question as Arap sat in her office. "She asked, 'Are you the author of that article?' " Vasilyeva said, relating what Arap told her.

When Arap replied "Yes," Rekish asked her to wait outside. Moments later police dressed in camouflage arrived and hauled Arap away, holding her arms crossed behind her back as they walked her to an ambulance.

When Vasilyeva and Arap's husband and daughter arrived at the psychiatric clinic in nearby Severomorsk to see her, the 49-year-old political activist couldn't walk or speak. Her eyes were swollen and barely open. She had just spent 24 hours strapped to a gurney, unable to move as nurses pumped heavy sedatives into her, Vasilyeva says.

The family has been told that Arap is being held because she poses a danger to others, an assessment made by Rekish and accepted by a judge during a hearing July 18.

Rekish did not respond to a request for an interview.

Arap is now being held at a mental asylum in Apatity, about 90 miles south of Murmansk. Vasilyeva and Arap's husband met with the asylum's chief doctor July 31.

"The first thing he said was, 'Aren't you afraid of publishing this kind of article?' " Vasilyeva said. "I looked into his eyes and said, 'You have the right to sue us if you don't like the article, but right now we're talking about why Larisa is in an asylum,' " Vasilyeva said.

"He made it clear the reason for her being at the asylum was the article."

Vasilyeva and Arap's relatives last saw her July 31 at the Apatity clinic. She appeared underweight and groggy.

"She ran to us and cried bitterly," Taisiya Arap said.

"She told me she's dying in there."

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