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Punitive Medicine? Crimean Tatars Shaken By Leader's Confinement To Mental Asylum

  • Charles Recknagel
  • Merhat Sharipzhan

The forced admission of Crimean Tatar activist Ilmi Umerov to a psychiatric clinic has stunned has colleagues and supporters, who say the 59-year-old community leader is anything but mentally unbalanced. (file photo)

The forced admission of Crimean Tatar activist Ilmi Umerov to a psychiatric clinic has stunned has colleagues and supporters, who say the 59-year-old community leader is anything but mentally unbalanced. (file photo)

When a court in Russian-annexed Crimea ordered activist Ilmi Umerov to a psychiatric clinic for a month of assessment tests, the decision sent shock waves through the peninsula's indigenous ethnic Tatar minority.

For two and a half decades, authorities in Crimea have refrained from the routine Soviet-era practice of declaring dissidents mentally ill, condemning them to life in an insane asylum. But now, Umerov's sentencing and subsequent confinement to a psychiatric clinic in Simferopol suggests a return to the practice.

Crimean prosecutors first charged Umerov, the former deputy chairman of the Crimean Tatars' self-governing body -- the Mejlis -- with separatism in May after he made public statements opposing Moscow's seizure of the peninsula from Ukraine. Then, on August 11, while he was under home detention during his trial, a court ordered Umerov to undergo psychiatric testing. A week later, he was forcibly committed to Simferopol's Psychiatric Hospital No. 1 for a 28-day period.

The forced admission to the clinic stunned Umerov's colleagues and supporters, who say the 59-year-old community leader is anything but mentally unbalanced.

"I have known him for 30 years, I know him well," Abdureshit Dzhepparov, coordinator of the Crimean Contact Group on Human Rights, told RFE/RL on August 22. "I may not be an expert psychiatrist, but on the eve of his removal to the psychiatric clinic, I know that he was without a doubt in full mental health."

Umerov's sudden dispatch to a mental institution, where for the first several days he was denied visitors or the use of a telephone, reminded many of the dark days when dissidents in the Soviet Union simply disappeared into asylums, never to be seen or heard from again.

"This is the first case in [post-Soviet] Crimea where they have placed a normal person in a psychiatric hospital," said Dzhepparov. "If you do not fight against it now, and try to change it, there could be second, third, and fourth cases...until it becomes a conveyor belt."

Echoes Of The Past

Umerov's daughter, Aishe, told RFE/RL on August 21 that she believes the court's intention is to break her father's spirit even before his trial is completed.

"Their major goal is to break the man to make him betray his principles," she said. "In other words, all in the 'best' tradition of the Soviet punitive medicine. But he holds on."

Fears that Russia could be reviving the practice of committing dissidents to asylums are fueled by other, similar cases. In one prominent example, Russian activist Mikhail Kosenko, one of the defendants in the "Bolotnaya Square Case," was sentenced to compulsory psychiatric treatment in October 2013. His crime was participating in a protest that turned violent in Moscow's central Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, over Russian President Vladimir Putin's inauguration for a third term. Kosenko remained in a closed psychiatric institution for eight months.

Umerov's sudden confinement comes despite the fact he suffers serious illnesses that require regular medical attention -- care that reportedly he is not receiving in the asylum. He has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Relatives say that, in the clinic, Umerov is allowed to have medication only once a day, despite his need for more frequent doses. When his daughter visited him recently, she found him suffering from high blood pressure, dizziness, and fainting spells. She said the food provided by the clinic is not suitable for her father's illnesses and he is only able to eat what relatives bring, despite the fact that their visits can be up to 17 hours apart, depending on the clinic's admission schedule.

'Politically Motivated'

Human rights groups have protested against Umerov's detention in the asylum.

The Moscow-based Memorial human rights center called the case against Umerov "illegal and politically motivated" as he was sentenced to the psychological tests earlier this month.

The Kharkiv Rights Protection Group, based in the Ukrainian city of the same name, argued on August 22 that "there are no grounds at all for the criminal charges Russia has brought against him, nor for the supposed 'psychiatric assessment.'"

Moscow claims that Umerov fomented separatism in an interview he gave to the Crimean Tatar television station ATR on March 19 in Kyiv. In the interview, he said Ukraine must not change its view on Crimea and that "Russia must be forced to leave Crimea and Donbas," a reference to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine.

Supporters said that Umerov has never called for armed resistance within Crimea to Russia's occupation. They also noted that his views are in line with those of most Crimean Tatars, the majority of whom opposed the peninsula's occupation and annexation by Moscow in March 2014.

More than 1,000 Crimean Tatars attended a prayer service for Umerov at his home in Bakhchysarai in southern Crimea on August 22. His family reported that those in attendance came from all corners of the peninsula.

Based on reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service