Psychiatry as a Tool of Political Repression in Crimea

Elena Lysenko
A picket for the release of Crimean lawyer Emil Kurbedinov on 31 January 2017 in Simferopol, Ukraine. Photo by Elena Lysenko

Psychiatry as a Tool of Political Repression in Crimea
Madeline Roache
Special to The Russian Reader
April 9, 2017

Lawyers and human rights activists claim the Russian authorities in annexed Crimea have been persecuting human rights activists, most of whom belong to the Muslim Crimean Tatar community. The Crimean Tatars, who make up about 15% of Crimea’s population, have vocally opposed Russia’s occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula since February 2014. As a result, the group has been specially targeted by Russian authorities. Many Crimean Tatars have been forced to leave the region to avoid harassment and arbitrary arrest.

According to a new report, presented on March 23 by Ukrainian advocacy group Crimea SOS, a total of 43 local activists have been abducted since Russian troops occupied Crimea in February 2014—allegedly, by the Russian authorities and their accomplices. Eighteen of those who were abducted are still missing and six have been found dead.

Robert van Voren, a Dutch human rights activist and political scientist, said that, since the annexation, many Crimean Tatar activists who oppose the occupation have been arrested and subjected to abuse and imprisonment in psychiatric institutions.

“Since the annexation of Crimea, Russian authorities have prosecuted and forced into exile virtually all those who oppose the Russian occupation, including key leaders and activists within the Crimean Tatar community”, he said.

Emil Kurbedinov, a prominent Crimean lawyer, told the Guardian that, between December 2016 and March 2017, twelve Crimean activists were forcibly admitted to psychiatric hospitals in Crimea. Four of them remain in hospital, while the rest have either been transferred to prison or discharged.

According to Kurbedinov, Crimean activists are treated in a degrading way and face appalling conditions in psychiatric hospitals.

“Some are placed in isolation and are denied their basic needs, such as access to a toilet. Others are housed with numerous people suffering from severe mental illnesses. The activists are interrogated about their alleged involvement in ‘extremism’ and their views of the government. They are also deprived of the right to speak with their families or meet their lawyers on a one-to-one basis without a guard being present. All of this violates international law,” he said.

All of the Crimean activists were arrested on suspicion of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Russia, unlike Ukraine and other countries, has declared a terrorist group. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) asserts there is no evidence to suggest the organisation has anything to do with terrorism, nor is there any proof the men were even involved in the group.

Kurbedinov says their arrest was illegal and a breach of protocol, as it was not sanctioned by a judge but ordered by a police investigator.

According to KHPG, a further 19 Crimean activists are currently in custody, accused of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. Memorial, a Russian human rights organization, has declared all the activists in custody political prisoners. KHPG claims that one of the detainees, Emir Kuku, was most likely arrested due to his work for the Crimean Contact Group on Human Rights, which provides legal assistance and support to members of Muslim groups.

Last year, Kurbedinov defended Ilmi Umerov, a Crimean Tatar activist who openly opposed the Russian occupation. Umerov was sent against his will to a psychiatric hospital in August 2016. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) detained Umerov in May 2016 in the Bakhchysarai District and charged him with separatism. Umerov is also a representative in the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, an elected body that was suspended by Moscow after it annexed Crimea. Human Rights Watch heavily criticized the case, calling it “a shameful attempt to use psychiatry to silence [Umerov] and tarnish his reputation.” Umerov was released twenty days after his confinement.

Kurbedinov argues that these cases have “acutely raised the issue of the vulnerability of ordinary citizens who have no civil rights whatsoever before the legal and judicial monolith.”

Soviet Psychiatry
The practice of punitive psychiatry in the present day is particularly disturbing given its historical use as a tool of rampant political repression the in the later decades of the Soviet era. Psychiatry was used to systematically confine and punish Soviet dissidents. However, under President Vladimir Putin, cases of the alleged political abuse of psychiatry have resurfaced, leading many to believe that the Soviet-era practice has returned.

The involuntary hospitalization of protestor Mikhail Kosenko in Russia in 2012, is just one of many modern-day cases that has been widely held up as an example of the political abuse of psychiatry. Kosenko was convicted on charges of rioting and assaulting a police officer during the Bolotnaya Square anti-Putin protests in Moscow on May 6, 2012. The case sparked international attention from human rights activists, who asserted the charges were fabricated and that Kosenko’s hospitalization was unnecessary.

The abuse of psychiatry in Russian criminal trials is not uncommon, according to Yuri Savenko, psychiatrist and head of the Independent Psychiatric Association (IPA) in Russia.

“Psychiatry is now frequently part of the procedure in criminal trials where there is no concrete evidence: it is more economical in terms of time and effort just to obtain a psychiatric diagnosis,” he says.

This disturbing phenomenon is of particular concern to the Federation Global Initiative on Psychiatry (FGIP), a human rights organization that protects human rights in mental healthcare. FGIP closely monitors the practice and is currently compiling a report about cases of psychiatric abuse in the post-Soviet states, to be published later this month.

Madeline Roache is a London-based freelance journalist focusing on human rights conditions in the former Soviet Union. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Times of Central Asia, and Euromaidan Press.

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