Rights Activist Tells of Detention In Russian Psychiatric Institutions

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By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 22, 2007

It was just an errand, one more stop to get through the red tape, said Larissa Arap.

Arap, a rights activist in Russia, said she was seeking a driver's license, and all she needed was a routine signature from a doctor certifying that she was in good health. But instead of complying, a psychiatrist in the northern Russian town of Murmansk asked Arap whether she was the one who had written "Madhouse," an article in a local paper that had exposed unorthodox and dismal conditions in psychiatric wards.

As she slowly responded "yes," Arap recalled, it dawned on her why a security vehicle was parked outside next to an ambulance. A policeman came in as two others waited in the hallway. The psychiatrist refused to sign the document.

"Because you are the author who wrote about the closed psychiatric system, which is forbidden, we are sending you to a psychiatric institution," the psychiatrist said, according to Arap.

What followed that July day was a horrific six-week stay in psychiatric wards, said Arap, who recounted her story in an interview last week in Washington.

Activists say Arap was only one of countless Russian citizens who have been wrongly spirited into mental facilities. The tactics echo those used during Soviet times, when a whole class of professionals, doctors, judges and low-level officials cooperated with government officials to silence critics.

Some government critics have called the phenomenon "police psychiatry."

These days, such tactics are used to muzzle political opponents, incapacitate rivals or simply remove tenants from apartments where they are not wanted, said Marina Litvinovich, who accompanied Arap to Washington and who serves as a political adviser to the civic organization run by chess champion Gary Kasparov.

Arap said that, in her case, police dragged her out of the medical office and forced her into an ambulance, which took her to the Murmansk psychiatric clinic. She said they beat her in the waiting area, injuring her spine. Medical personnel ripped her clothes off and tied her to a bed, she said.

Officials at the clinic that treated Arap have denied allegations of abuse. "We are representatives of a state medical institution; they are libeling Russia," Yevgeny Zenin, the hospital's chief doctor said, according to the Reuters news agency.

Today, Arap still walks slowly, and there is swelling around her ankles.

"They started injecting me with some substance. I was petrified and I started having double vision. I lost consciousness and all sense of time. I would drift in and out of consciousness," recalled Arap, 49.


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