As Britain’s relations with Russia deteriorate further, news comes through of a Russian journalist and opposition activist who has been forcibly detained in a psychiatric unit.
In February this year I wrote about the case of the Uzbeki journalist Dzhamshid Karimov, a nephew of the President, who has been held in a psychiatric hospital since September 2006. Another Russian journalist, Vladimir Chugunov, was released from psychiatric detention in May this year. Chugunov was arrested on 21 January 2007 and was held for over five months in isolation, during which time he claims to have been moved between prison cells, hospital and psychiatric wards. He has apparently never received a diagnosis for any psychiatric disorder. This sort of punishment for political prisoners harks back to the Soviet era, particularly during the 1970s, when forced hospitalisation was routinely used to silence dissent.
News of Larisa Arap’s detention first came from Garry Kasparov, the chess champion turned dissident. Arap, forty-eight, a Russian opposition activist, is a member of Kasparov’s United Civil Front – one of the few opposition groups operating in Russia. On 30 July this year The Independent, quoting Kasparov, reported that Arap had been forcibly detained in a psychiatric clinic near the Arctic city of Murmansk.
In a cruel twist, the move is believed to be in retaliation for an article by Arap in which she criticised practices in children’s mental wards in Russia. According to her daughter, Arap had needed to collect a mental health certificate (apparently required by Russian law) in order to renew her driving licence. When she visited a psychiatrist on 5 July, the doctor asked if Arap was the author of the critical article, which noted the use of violence and electric shock treatment on children. When she confirmed that she had written the piece the doctor then called the police.
The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (a human rights organisation operating within the Russian Union of Journalists) reports that Arap had her hands bound and was taken to the local psychiatric hospital. Yelena Vasilyeva, the head of the United Civil Front in Murmansk, told them that when Arap’s husband and daughter arrived at the clinic, the doctor on duty threw a copy of the newspaper containing the critical article in their faces, yelling at them that ‘no one has a right to write on what is going on in the hospital.’
Nearly a year ago, on 7 October 2006, the world-renowned journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in Moscow. It seems that her murder has served as some sort of benchmark. Amnesty reports an escalation of repression in the Russian Federation over the last year, with human rights defenders and independent civil society coming under increasing pressure: ‘The authorities clamped down on the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly … journalists were intimidated and attacked … Extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and abductions, torture including in unofficial detention centres and arbitrary detentions…’. Against this background, it is not so surprising that Britain’s diplomatic relations with Russia have become distinctly chilly, and Britain is not alone in this. These abuses have led the European Court of Human Rights to rule that Russia has ‘violated the rights to life, to liberty and security, to respect for private and family life … and to the prohibition of torture’.
Arap is reportedly being medicated against her will. Her family have filed a written request for information regarding the journalist’s diagnosis, but the doctors have refused to disclose any information, despite the fact that by law close relatives have a right to be informed of the diagnosis in such cases. Her family claim that the hospital administration is punishing the journalist for her article, although Vasilyeva suggests it is also possible that the doctors received instructions from the political department of the Federal Security Service, created on 7 April this year to combat the opposition movement.
Her detention is ringing alarm bells amongst many Russians. Former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky told the Russian radio station Echo Moscow that the forced hospitalisation of Arap was not the first incident of this kind in recent times and noted that the use of psychiatry for punitive aims in Russia is returning.
Readers may like to send appeals calling for the release of Larisa Arap to President Putin and presidential human rights advisor Ella Panfilova:
c/o HE Mr Yury Viktorovich Fedotov
Embassy of the Russian Federation
13 Kensington Palace Gardens
London W8 4QX
Fax: 0207 229 5804