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Increasingly, Russian Activists Find Themselves Sentenced To Compulsory Medical Treatment

MOSCOW — On July 14, a court ordered Violetta Grudina, a former local representative for opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in Murmansk who is seeking a seat on the City Council, hospitalized and treated for COVID-19 — despite the fact that she had no symptoms, a negative test, and a doctor who testified that she did not need treatment.

On July 26, Grudina announced a hunger strike in protest. She says hospital officials prevented her from sending forms to her staff to submit to election officials in the northwestern city. The hospital’s chief doctor, Arkady Amozov, won the “primary” from the ruling United Russia party for the City Council seat that Grudina is seeking, although he is officially running as an independent.

Amozov “is illegally detaining me, hindering my candidacy, depriving me of my personal liberty and my right to seek election, and is isolating me in a COVID-19 hospital under his authority,” Grudina told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

On July 19, a military court in Khabarovsk, some 9,500 kilometers east of Murmansk in the Russian Far East, sent Irkutsk blogger and former Navalny staffer Dmitry Nadein for compulsory psychological treatment in connection with his trial on what he contends is a baseless charge of “justifying terrorism.” Nadein’s family said he had been secretly transferred in mid-June from Irkutsk to Khabarovsk, more than 2,200 km away, and officials have refused to explain why he is being tried in a different region.

In April, Nadein was being held in pretrial custody when the court ordered him to undergo psychiatric evaluation. According to his defense team, he was not allowed to communicate with his lawyers during this time, and he was diagnosed as a dangerous “schizophrenic.”

A court ordered that Violetta Grudina, a former representative for opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, be hospitalized.

In a higher-profile case, a court in Yakutsk on July 26 ordered colorful shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev, who has been calling for the ouster of President Vladimir Putin since 2019, to undergo “intensive” compulsory psychiatric treatment after convicting him of resisting a police officer and advocating extremism.

Grudina, Nadein, and Gabyshev are the latest among hundreds of activists who have been ordered to undergo compulsory psychiatric or other medical treatment in what the now-defunct Agora legal-defense NGO called in a 2016 report “a return to the practice of punitive psychiatry in Russia.” The government listed Agora, one of Russia’s leading human rights NGOs, as a “foreign agent” organization shortly after the report, and it was forced to disband later the same year.

Soviet Practice

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was widely condemned for using psychiatry to punish dissent. The Agora report, the most recent independent investigation of the topic, notes that many of those arrested during a national wave of protests following the disputed 2011 legislative elections and Putin’s decision to seek a third presidential term in March 2012 were ordered to undergo such treatment. Many of them were diagnosed as “schizophrenics” and administered psychotropic drugs without being informed or giving consent.

The number of cases in which a defendant was ordered to undergo compulsory psychiatric evaluation rose from about 189,000 in 2011 — a figure that had been fairly stable since at least 2004 — to 216,744 in 2014, according to official statistics cited in the Agora report.

Two of the defendants in the 2012 Pussy Riot case — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich — were ordered to undergo evaluation and were diagnosed with “disorders” ranging from “an active life position and a desire for self-realization” to “a categorical insistence on their own opinion,” according to court documents.

“The psychological evaluation conducted while I was in custody at the order of prosecutors found that the main traits of my personality are humanism and a desire for freedom and justice,” Tolokonnikova said during her closing remarks to the court.

Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko and the late prisoners’ rights advocate Sergei Mokhnatkin are among other high-profile defendants who were ordered to undergo such evaluations.

Agora warned that the ability of prosecutors to request such evaluations without any justification, the documented willingness of the courts to almost uniformly grant those requests, and the near-total lack of oversight or monitoring of defendants undergoing such treatment have created a system that is ripe for politically motivated abuse.

Retired postal worker and pro-democracy activist Pyotr Trofimov, who has been granted political asylum in Finland, was arrested in 2018 on charges of failing to return equipment to a previous employer when he worked as a welder. He denies the allegations and says they were trumped up in retaliation for his protest activity.

He spent nearly a month undergoing a compulsory psychiatric evaluation.

“I was in a room for two people,” he said. “We were locked in at night. There was a sink and a toilet. There was also a shower, but we were only allowed to use it once a week.”

“Under the law, a court can order you to undergo an evaluation for 30 days,” he added. “But if the doctors don’t reach any conclusion by that time, the court can add another 30 days. And then another.”

Mikhail Kosenko, a defendant in the so-called Bolotnaya protest case, spent 18 months in a psychiatric facility with a diagnosis of “paranoid schizophrenia.”

“He was lost after being released from the hospital,” his sister, Ksenya, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service in 2015. “It took him about eight months to get back to normal.”

Anna Bitova specializes in studying cognitive and neurological impairment in children. She told Current Time that people sentenced to compulsory psychological treatment are completely under the control of the facility to which they are assigned.

“You are not allowed to get up when you want, to eat when you want, to go anywhere, to wear what you want, or to do what you want,” she said. “You are in de facto compulsory isolation.”

In October 2014, political performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky cut off part of his ear while sitting naked on the roof of Moscow’s Serbsky State Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry to protest the return of punitive psychiatric treatment in Russia.

“Armed with psychiatric diagnoses, bureaucrats in white coats cut off from society those parts that hinder him from installing a monolithic dictatorship,” Pavlensky declared at the time.

Following the protest, a court ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation at the Serbsky center. Doctors deemed him fit to stand trial.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson based on reporting from Moscow by Current Time correspondent Olga Beshlei.

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