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Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Arap Saga Continues

Writing in the American Spectator, journalist and blogger Christopher Orlet blasts the Kremlin over the neo-Soviet weaponization of psychiatry:

At first blush it would seem a typical case of Russian President Vladimir Putin dipping into the Old Bolshevik's Playbook -- just another example of Life imitating Marx. But in today's Russia, things are seldom what they seem.

Take the case of Larisa Arap. Ms. Arap, 49, is a journalist and, for the past six weeks, an inmate of a psychiatric clinic in the northwestern cities of Murmansk (the world's largest city north of the Arctic Circle) and Apatiti. On July 5, 2007, Ms. Arap appeared for her annual physical, a requirement for renewing one's driver's license. It was during the exam that Dr. Marina
Rekish discovered that her patient was the author of a newspaper story titled "Madhouse" that alleged child abuse and other barbarisms at the Murmansk Regional Psychiatric Hospital. Dr. Rekish immediately telephoned police who arrived minutes later --dressed in combat fatigues -- and dragged the reporter to the hospital's psychiatric unit where she has remained under "doctors' care" ever since.

Both opposition leader and former chess champ Garry Kasparov and the chair of Russia's Independent Psychiatric Association, Dr. Vladimir Prokudin, charge that Ms. Arap's confinement is retribution for her investigative piece. The hospital's chief medical officer Yevgeny Yenin dismissed any link between Arap's piece and her confinement. He then violated his patient's privacy rights by revealing that Ms. Arap had been committed once before. (Arap's husband acknowledged that his wife had been in a psych unit for two weeks in 2004 for stress. It was during this stay that she witnessed the abuses detailed in her story.)

Soon after her arrest a Murmansk judge -- acting on the recommendation of local authorities -- declared the reporter to be "a danger to herself and others," a view challenged by an account Arap's daughter gave to the Chicago Tribune. "One of the doctors asked whether I thought it was normal to write such things," Taisiya Arap told the Trib. "[The doctor] said, 'It's not possible to write such things. It's forbidden.'" Doctors also told Taisiya Arap that her mother needed "long term treatment and might never leave the clinic," the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported.

When not investigating allegations of child abuse by medical professionals, Arap is a member of Kasparov's opposition United Civil Front. Following Arap's arrest, Kasparov told the Independent

Indeed, Ms. Arap's detention recalls a time not so long ago when all Soviet dissidents were regarded as being of unsound mind, since "no sane person would declaim against Soviet government and communism," and paranoia was defined as the obsession with "the struggle for truth and justice." It was an effective and convenient way of silencing dissidents for institutionalization not only descredited their ideas, it broke them physically and mentally. "Treatment" often involved electric shocks, narcotics, beatings, isolation and torturous and unnecessary medical procedures like spinal taps. Patients were frequently doped into submission for years at a time. Whether this was more humane than summary execution or exile to labor camps in Siberia or Kazakhstan is a matter of debate.

One of those who served time both in a gulag and a mental hospital, Vladimir Bukovsky, told the Tribune that "as far as the current lot in power is concerned using psychiatry for political purposes is a perfectly acceptable way of dealing with don't have to hire a killer." Such retro behavior is only to be expected, the director of Moscow's Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations Oleg Panfilov told the Independent. "When there are KGB officers in the government, they restore what there was during the Soviet era: propaganda, censorship, and repression." (That an organization called the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations is necessary says all one needs to know about freedom of the press in Russia.)

Sadly Ms. Arap's case is not unique. The Tribune has documented two similar episodes -- one of lawyer Marina Trutko, another of businessman Roman Lukin, both recently committed to psychiatric hospitals for human rights activities.

These days it is no easy thing to completely isolate so-called mental patients, and a few officials have been able to meet with Ms. Arap, including Russia's Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin, and three members of the Independent Psychiatric Association. The latter examined Arap and pronounced her to be of sound mind, though suffering from the effects of her confinement, maltreatment and her second hunger strike. The psychiatrists called for her immediate release.

Is this a case of a local medical mafia unable to shake its Soviet-era mindset and therefore taking the law into its own hands, or a thuggish government reverting to Stalinist tactics to silence and discredit the opposition? What do you want to bet it is, "All of the Above"? -- that anyone can be forcibly detained "if you attack the interests of the local Gazprom, the local military base, or the local medical mafia. Attacking the interests of local bureaucrats is a terrible risk, because they don't stop at anything to get their own back."

It's worthy of note the Russia Profile, the Kremlin's slavishly insidious propaganda blog, has stated:
"Larisa Arap is not a journalist, and in contradiction to what has been widely reported, did not write the article in question. She is an accountant at the Murmansk office of the United Civil Front, and was quoted at length in an article written by a journalist named Ilona Novikova entitled 'Madhouse' and published in a special edition of a local opposition newspaper titled 'Dissenters March.'" This is really pathetic propaganda. Everyone associated with the opposition groups in Russia has a day job because there isn't enough money to pay them. That doesn't mean she's not a journalist, and it's been made quite clear that Arap was the de facto author of the piece in question, though she was presented as a source by the nominal writer.

Russia Profile also seeks to smear Arap by stating: "It seems that Ms. Arap does have a history of psychiatric problems." It doesn't give one single shred of evidence to back up this claim, and the fact that Ms. Arap had "psychiatric problems" at some point in her life has nothing whatsoever to do with whether there were grounds to incarcerate her. Shame on Russia Profile for this unsourced smear, and shame on all those associated with it!

But it's also worthy of note that not even Russia Profile can completely deny the horror of this situation, though it does it all it can to minimize it. RP itself admits that Russia's human rights Czar has examined the situation, found the detention totally bogus, and declared: "This woman is a member of the United Civil Front and as such was able to get international attention," said Savenko. "But there are many other cases that are even more disturbing that have not made it to the public domain. We are on the verge of a wide-scale misuse of psychiatry for non-medical grounds that is reminiscent of Soviet times."

The Committee to Protect Journalists has written to "President" Putin to demand Arap's release:

August 14, 2007

His Excellency Vladimir Putin
President of the Russian Federation
The Kremlin
Moscow, Russia

Via Facsimile: 011 7 495 206 5137/206 6277

Your Excellency,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply disturbed by the illegal psychiatric confinement in the northern city of Apatity of opposition activist Larisa Arap. Arap’s forced hospitalization on July 5 came soon after the publication of a story she coauthored on the treatment of patients at the Murmansk regional psychiatric hospital in Apatity—the same hospital where she is being held today.

On June 8, the Murmansk edition of the opposition newspaper Marsh Nesoglasnykh (Dissenters’ March)—the organ of the opposition coalition United Civic Front (OGF), led by Garry Kasparov—published Arap’s story. Titled “Durdom” (“Madhouse”), it described how harsh medical practices, such as the use of electroshock therapy, were reportedly used in treating children and adolescents at Apatity.

On July 5, Arap went to a local clinic in Severomorsk to receive the results of a medical checkup she had undergone a month earlier as a requirement to renew her driver’s license. What was intended as a routine doctor’s visit turned into a 40-day nightmare. Her doctor, Marina Rekish, who had issued a certificate for Arap a year earlier, asked her whether she was the author of “Durdom.” When Arap confirmed that she was indeed the author, Rekish told her to wait outside. After some time, the doctor returned with several police officers who detained Arap until an ambulance arrived. Arap was taken to a Murmansk hospital where she was injected with drugs that weakened her, caused her tongue to swell, blurred her vision, and affected her balance, according to relatives who visited her at the hospital.

On July 7, when Arap’s husband, Dmitry, and daughter, Taisiya, were allowed to visit her at the hospital, Arap complained that the medical personnel had tied her to her bed and beat her. To protest the treatment, Arap went on a five-day hunger strike on July 9. Yelena Vasilyeva, chairwoman of the Murmansk branch of OGF and Arap’s trustee, told the Russian press that Arap feared doctors were drugging her meals.

It was not until July 18 that a Murmansk district court officially sanctioned Arap’s hospitalization, meaning her 13-day detention had been illegal. The court upheld an appeal by the hospital holding Arap and ignored entreaties from her relatives and colleagues who pointed out that she was not a danger to herself or people around her.

Despite protests from local and international opposition and human rights activists, authorities continued to hold Arap and medicate her without her diagnosis. Doctors have also refused to give her diagnosis to her family, lawyer, and trustee. On July 26, the 49-year-old Arap was taken to the Murmansk regional psychiatric hospital in Apatity—the place she described in “Durdom.”

The city of Apatity is about 100 miles (161 kilometers) south of Murmansk, and the hospital is outside city limits in a forested area. Mental patients housed there are considered a danger to themselves and those around them. On July 31, during a visit to Arap at Apatity, doctors openly asked Vasilyeva whether her coalition, OGF, was afraid of publishing an article like Arap’s “Durdom.” Arap is still being held at the hospital.

Responding to local and international protests, the Russian Ombudsman for Human Rights Vladimir Lukin commissioned an independent psychiatric evaluation of Arap.

Yesterday, Yuri Savenko, president of the Independent Psychiatric Association, concluded that Arap has been illegally hospitalized, the Interfax news agency reported. “Larisa Arap has been put in a clinic by force, rudely, and without any grounds,” Savenko told Interfax. “This style, which is typical of the Soviet times—to protect the state and not the person—is used by inertia,” Savenko was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, local sources told CPJ that Larisa Arap’s daughter, Taisiya, was fired from her job at a Murmansk bank last week. Her employers told her she had been giving too many interviews about her mother.

Your Excellency, the horrifying method of forcible psychiatric detention as punishment for dissent was a trademark of the Soviet past and has no place in a new, democratic Russia. We call on you to personally intervene in the case of Larisa Arap, who has been living a nightmare because she wrote a story that angered those same hospital authorities “treating” her now. In view of yesterday’s expert conclusion by the Independent Psychiatric Association, we ask that Larisa Arap be immediately released and that a criminal investigation is opened against those responsible for her illegal detention and psychiatric treatment.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. We await your reply.

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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