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Russia: Budanov Case Raises Questions Over Use Of Psychiatry

  • Valentinas Mite

The case of a Russian Army colonel accused of raping and killing a Chechen girl is raising concern that the Russian government may again be using psychiatry for its own ends. The suspect, Colonel Yurii Budanov, has been judged mentally unfit to stand trial. But the evaluation comes from the Serbskii institute, the same institute that once confined dissidents and political prisoners.

Prague, 12 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Psychiatrists from the Russian State Scientific Center of Social and Forensic Medicine, the Serbskii institute, have ruled that Colonel Yurii Budanov, accused of raping and killing an 18-year-old Chechen girl, is not mentally fit to stand trial.

Following the diagnosis, the North Caucasus Military Court has refused calls to order an independent psychiatric investigation. Budanov is now likely to go free.

Doctors at the Serbskii institute say Budanov was temporarily insane at the time of the abduction and murder of Elza Kungaeeva two years ago.

But the diagnosis by the institute, which is notorious for its role in confining Soviet-era dissidents in psychiatric wards, has raised concern that psychiatry is once again being misused -- this time to exonerate the guilty rather than to confine the innocent.

Yurii Savenko is the president of Independent Association of Russian Psychiatrists, a member of the World Psychiatric Association. He told RFE/RL that abuse of psychiatry is not as frequent as it was during Soviet times. "Of course the scope of the abuses does not compare with the Soviet times, and they try not to do it," Savenko said.

But he said psychiatry is still used, and abused, by the state when necessary. Savenko said the institute made serious flaws in the Budanov diagnosis. He pointed out that after raping and killing the Chechen girl, Budanov ordered soldiers to bury her. Budanov then went to sleep.

Savenko said that if Budanov had been in a state of mental disorder or shock, he could not have acted so rationally.

Aleksander Podrabinek, a former dissident and author of the book "Punitive Medicine in the Soviet Union," agrees. He told RFE/RL that Budanov's case clearly shows that authorities continue to use psychiatry for their own purposes. "The legal authorities, executive authorities, and the military tried to do everything to save Budanov and to prove he was mentally unsound. That's why they sent him to the Serbskii institute. The main purpose was to prove that he is not mentally competent to stand trial," Podrabinek said.

Podrabinek said the doctor, Tamara Pechernikova, who led the group that examined Budanov has a history of making questionable diagnoses in politically sensitive cases.

He said Pechernikova is the same doctor who in 1968 diagnosed Natalya Gorbanevskaya with schizophrenia. Gorbanevskaya was an activist who protested the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. She was confined to a psychiatric hospital in Kazan for three years.

Pechernikova was also involved in the questionable evaluations of former dissidents like Vyacheslav Igrunov, Viktor Kuznetsov, Ivan Yakhimovits, Aleksandr Ginsburg, and Podrobinek himself.

Podrabinek said the Serbskii institute introduced only cosmetic reforms after the collapse of communism. These included removing former director Georgii Morozov, although he still keeps an honorary office at the institute.

Podrobinek also noted that Boris Shostakovich, a psychiatric expert who helped to confine Soviet dissident Zhores Medvedev, still works at the institute. "If such well-known, notorious figures are still working at the institute, one must admit it is easier for lesser-known specialists who also took part in [Soviet-era] repression to remain there," Podrobinek said.

Yevgenii Makushkin, a deputy director at the Serbskii institute, rejects the view that the institute has played a role in political repression. He told RFE/RL that there is no need to accuse the institute of cooperating with the KGB or of confining Soviet dissidents because the majority of the institute's diagnoses have proved correct. "The percentage of false diagnoses was very small. It is not correct to accuse us of problems that happened in the past," Makushkin said.

Makushkin also defended Pechernikova, saying, "You know, there are not many specialists like Dr. Pechernikova in the world."

Makushkin said the conclusions made by the Serbskii institute in Budanov's case are professional and reflect Budanov's mental condition. He did not comment on the observations of independent psychiatrists led by Savenko.

Savenko said the institute was, and remains, at the service of the authorities and has their strong support. He said the current director of the institute, Tamara Dimitrieva, served as Russian health minister several years ago, remaining the director of the Serbskii institute at the same time.