Staunton, September 2 – During the last three decades of Soviet power, Bulat Mukhamedzhanov says, “psychiatry was one of the main instruments of repression in the USSR.” Now, however, the Putin regime employs this more as a threat than a actual practice but is creating the conditions in which it could ramp up the application of punitive psychiatry.
The Zone of Law activist says that since 2012, Moscow has employed punitive psychiatry against a number of opponents. But “the current situation does not come close to that of the Soviet period.” Instead, the powers use it as a form of intimidation, although they are creating arrangements for its broader use (ridl.io/ru/karatelnaja-psihiatrija-v-rossii-nazad-v-sssr/).
Two recent developments are especially worrisome in that regard. Until 2018, only physicians could ask a court to commit someone to a psychiatric hospital involuntarily, but then Vladimir Putin extended that right to prosecutors as well who presumably can act without any medical expertise at all (currenttime.tv/a/29385049.html).
And then in July 2020, the Legislative Assembly of Leningrad Oblast called on the Duma to extend the right to commit people to psychiatric hospitals to the interior ministry, again without requiring an examination by psychiatrists (vnnews.ru/social/86315-gosduma-rassmotrit-predlozhenie-o-rasshirenii-polnomochij-politsii-dlya-prinuditelnoj-gospitalizatsii-v-psikhbolnitsu.html).
Given that many Russians view someone diagnosed as mentally ill as inherently “unreliable for life,” Mukhametdzhanov says, the power of officials to issue such “diagnoses” can prompt those the regime wishes to repress to confess to crimes they have not committed lest they fall victim of such labelling.
And he adds that “The siloviki are always satisfied when the defendant is found insane. Such a diagnosis is equated with a guilty verdict and is in favor of the investigator and the judge, who do not have to make extra efforts at collecting evidence or involving a prosecutor in a criminal case.”
The authorities have yet another reason for preferring the use of psychiatric incarceration. Keeping someone behind bars in a normal prison or camp requires court act, but extending psychiatric hospitalization is “a mere formality,” requiring only that one doctor specifies that the patient “needs further treatment.”
And until very recently, the powers that be were able to keep what happens in psychiatric hospitals beyond the reach of public oversight commissions. Until 2018, they had no right to inspect psychiatric hospitals; and even now, their ability to do so is much less than even their limited possibilities of visiting prisons, possibilities that have been limited in the last year.
Based on his examination of numerous cases in the last few years, Mukhamedzhanov concludes that “The closed, hierarchical psychiatric system in Russia is still largely independent from law enforcement. But the risk that punitive psychiatry might once again become a salient issue is high.”