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Special Treatment

The use of punitive psychiatry against political opponents appears to be on the upswing in post-Soviet states.

by Madeline Roache 19 May 2017

Many have heard of the female punk collective, Pussy Riot, whose controversial anti-Putin protest in 2012 led to a compulsory psychiatric examination, which resulted in a diagnosis of “a chronic personality disorder” and a recommendation for their hospitalization. Little do most people know that this was but a minor episode in the political abuse of psychiatry in Russia and other post-Soviet countries. Leaders in various post-Soviet states are increasingly turning to the Soviet-era tactic of imprisoning opponents in psychiatric wards, subjecting them to abuse and intimidation.


In the later decades of the Soviet-era, Russian authorities systematically imprisoned thousands of political and religious dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. With the fall of communism in the early 1990s, punitive psychiatry practically ceased to exist except for a few reported cases in Central Asia. But since the turn of the millennium, various cases of psychiatric abuse have emerged in the former Soviet Union, leading many to believe that this ominous form of political repression has returned.


A newly published report by Federation Global Initiative on Psychiatry (FGIP), an NGO that monitors human rights in psychiatry, refers to over 30 cases in Russia, Crimea, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan in which human right activists and journalists have been illegally imprisoned in psychiatric institutions since 2012. However, experts believe the real number of cases is considerably higher based on interviews with lawyers, psychiatrists, and victims involved. Most of the cases concern the Russian Federation and occupied Crimea, particularly since the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russian authorities in March 2014.  However, cases have also been reported in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.


According to FGIP’s 28-page report, activists have been hospitalized for periods of up to 10 years, depending on a variety of factors including the scale of their activism, their perceived threat to the authorities, and the amount of pressure exerted internationally by human rights organizations for the activist’s release.


“In many of these cases, psychiatric hospitals are far worse than prisons as the victims are forced to take psychotropic medicines that cause mental instability and a change in their behavior,” said Robert van Voren, a Dutch professor and chief executive of FGIP. “Also, unlike a prison sentence, the term of hospitalization can be indefinite or easily extended, making it a highly flexible tool for the authorities.”


The repeated hospitalization of Jamshid Karimov, an independent Uzbek journalist, has been widely held as one of the most prominent cases of punitive psychiatry in post-Soviet times. Karimov was a virulent critic of the late president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, who was also his uncle. The elder Karimov was a notoriously tyrannical leader who crushed the opposition in Uzbek society during his 27 years as head of state.


An abandoned Russian hospital. Image via


In 2006, Jamshid Karimov disappeared in the city of Jizzakh, and it was later discovered that he was forcibly hospitalized in the Samarkand psychiatric hospital. A criminal court ordered Karimov to undergo six months of compulsory psychiatric treatment, but he was not released until the end of 2011.  For five years, Karimov was forced to take psychotropic drugs that adversely affected his health. Just two months after his release, Karimov was forcibly readmitted into Samarkand hospital, where he was held as a prisoner for another five years until March this year.


Karimov’s hospitalization is widely believed to be connected to the articles he contributed to the opposition-leaning news site, and the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), which were highly critical of his uncle’s rule. His eventual release in 2017 was believed to have been prompted by Islam Karimov’s death in September 2016.


“I was hospitalized for so long because I was a personal enemy – it was a blood feud,” Karimov said in an interview with the author. “I believe that I was released because, when Islam died, I was no longer seen as a relative of the president, but just an ordinary person.”


Taking the Easy Way Out


In Russian-occupied Crimea, psychiatry is reportedly being used to imprison Crimean Tatar activists. The Tatar Muslim minority is said to be the most vocally opposed to Russia rule, and has therefore become a special target of the Russian authorities. According to Crimean defense lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, 12 Tatar activists were forced to undergo compulsory psychiatric treatment between November 2016 and March 2017.


According to Kurbedinov, the activists face appalling conditions in psychiatric hospitals. “Some are placed in isolation and are denied their basic needs, such as access to a toilet. The activists are interrogated about their alleged involvement in ‘extremism’ and their views of the government,” he said.


All of the activists were arrested on suspicion of their involvement in the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization that Russia declared a “terrorist” group. The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) asserts that there is no evidence to suggest that the organization is connected to terrorism, nor is there any proof that the men were involved in the group.


FGIP believes there are many more cases like this that go unreported. Affirming this, Yuri Savenko, a psychiatrist and head of the Independent Psychiatric Association of Russia (IPA), declared that “psychiatry is now part of a frequent procedure in criminal trials where there is no concrete evidence. It is more economical [than gathering evidence] in terms of the effort and time to acquire a psychiatric evaluation.”


Many have also viewed the psychiatric confinement of Maksim Panfilov – a 30-year-old resident of Astrakhan, a city in southern Russia – in March this year as a case of punitive psychiatry. In 2016, Panfilov was detained on charges of participating in a mass riot and of using force against a police officer, in connection with his involvement in the 2012 Bolotnaya protests (which took place in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow during some of the largest demonstrations in Russia since the 1990s). After a six-month-long criminal trial that many human rights activists deemed fraudulent, Panfilov was sent for a compulsory psychiatric examination that concluded that he suffered from “chronic personality disorder” and was a danger to himself and society. As a result, the court ordered him to undergo compulsory psychiatric treatment, despite a second examination conducted by Savenko, rejecting the need for his hospitalization.


In the words of Sergei Kovalyev – a human rights activist and politician who once served as a human rights adviser to former President Boris Yeltsin – punitive psychiatry is part of a long-standing effort by authorities to enforce political conformity. Many argue that the psychiatric imprisonment of activists is both a punitive measure and a preventative one. It not only punishes the individual activist but also serves as a signal to the rest of the population, warning them not to publicly criticize the regime. More importantly, it discredits the ideas of the opposition, staining its members with the stigma of mental illness.


FGIP is calling on human rights organizations and political bodies to take urgent action to guard psychiatry against political abuse.


“We fear we are at a crossroads,” write FGIP’s van Voren and Victor Davydov, a former psychiatric prisoner in Soviet times, in the FGIP report. “Unless sufficient pressure is exerted on national authorities in the countries concerned, we can expect that in some of the former Soviet republics we will slide back towards a governmental policy of using psychiatry for non-medical purposes.”

Madeline Roache is a London-based freelance journalist, focusing on human rights in the former Soviet Union. She collaborated with FGIP on the report cited above as the political abuse of psychiatry in modern Russia was the subject of her final master’s thesis at University College London.

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