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Complaint Lands Russian K-9 Cop In Psychiatric Hospital

Police Captain Oksana Semykina (left) is no political dissident, just someone who argued with her boss.
Police Captain Oksana Semykina (left) is no political dissident, just someone who argued with her boss.

Oksana Semykina feared reprisals when she complained about having to work lots of overtime with little time off, but being shipped off to a psychiatric hospital wasn't one of them.

But that's exactly what happened to the 36-year-old policewoman in early August, shortly after she expressed concerns to supervisors about her work with the K-9 unit at a St. Petersburg police precinct.

A police union official said the cop-on-cop case marked a first in Russia, where police locking up critics in psychiatric hospitals is a tradition that dates back to the early Soviet days.

The case sparked an outcry in Russia, and more than 230,000 people signed an online petition addressed to President Vladimir Putin calling on him to intervene to free Semykina, who was drugged unconscious before being transported on August 4 to the Kashchenko Psychiatric Hospital, where she reportedly revived only two days later.

Adding to the outrage was the fact Semykina was no opponent of the Kremlin. In fact, she had served in Russia's armed forces and received awards "for 15 years of impeccable service" in the K-9 police unit, according to the petition.

The campaign, spearheaded in large part by her mother, Antonina Gres, created enough public pressure that a local court examined Semykina's forced admission. After only seven hours of deliberations the court ruled on September 8 that Semykina had been unjustly interned. She walked free the same day as supporters and friends cheered on social media.

Since then, Semykina has kept out of the public eye, recuperating from what family and lawyers say was a nightmarish experience, including forced drug injections that left her dazed and confused. She will now be transferred to a K-9 unit in Stavropol, where her mother lives, and what Semykina had reportedly requested from her superiors in the first place.

Russia's Investigative Committee is reportedly looking into the circumstances surrounding Semykina's case and operations at the police station, although the powerful committee has not confirmed those Russian media reports. The K-9 division of the St. Petersburg Police Department is also keeping mum, refusing to comment on the case.

Drugged, Then Diagnosed

Dmitry Povarov, chairman of the central committee of a union representing Interior Ministry employees, says he has sent a formal request to the Prosecutor-General's Office, the Interior Ministry, and the Health Ministry to investigate the legality of Semykina's forced hospitalization and whether those involved, from the police to staff at the psychiatric hospital, acted properly.

According to Povarov, this is the first time a police officer has been sent to a psychiatric hospital following an argument with superiors.

Povarov says Russian law enforcement officers are being pushed to the limits due to cutbacks. "Overtime and unpaid work during time off, that's our burden. Since the Interior Ministry made 10 percent staffing cuts, complaints have skyrocketed," Povarov explains to RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Semykina had spent three nights at the Kashchenko Psychiatric Hospital before her mother learned of her whereabouts following frantic calls to local hospitals.

Gres says staff at the hospital were less than willing to divulge any details about her daughter or her condition. "I said, 'I'm her mother and I have the right to know what's happened to my daughter,'" Gres recounts in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service. "They told me, 'There is nothing for you here.' They even said that we shouldn't come there, that they wouldn't let us in."

Gres says her daughter had never before complained to her supervisors about long hours and lack of time off, reasoning that it was "pointless."

Her lawyer, Andrei Vlasov, says he saw the marks from the injections administered to Semykina, who awoke only after two days. According to Vlasov, staff at the psychiatric hospital assessed that Semykina was suffering from mental problems, including "symptoms of schizophrenia," while she lay unconscious at the facility for those two days.

Vlasov says Semykina was in "terrible shape" when he saw her, barely able to talk and eyes half-open. He says she had been injected with haloperidol, used to treat schizophrenia, and other drugs.

Vlasov says a local court had rubber-stamped an official request to have her admitted there, stressing that this was not unusual. "The court hears 20-30 such cases a day, spending no more than 10 minutes on each," Vlasov claims.

Anton Sereda, a member of the Citizens' Commission on Human Rights, says that the NGO has received "lots" of complaints about people being wrongly placed in psychiatric hospitals, although he offers no hard numbers.

Drugging Dissent

A close colleague who spoke to RFE/RL says Semykina called her the night before the fateful day. "She was afraid that they might puncture her tires, but we couldn't imagine in our worst dreams that she would end up spending a month in a psychiatric hospital," says the colleague, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.

The colleague says Semykina approached her supervisor and requested a transfer to Stavropol, saying she couldn't cope with the endless overtime and lack of time off.

The colleague claims that all the K-9 officers were stressed out from a growing work load, due in part to a high attrition rate at their precinct. "I once worked 21 shifts without a break, and on the 22nd I went to my supervisors and said, 'I'm on the point of collapsing,'" the colleague says.

A day after that August 3 encounter, Semykina was blocked from entering the police precinct. Undeterred, she scaled a fence and entered the premises. She had a heated exchange with a supervisor, culminating with her apparently knocking a tablet from his hands. Shortly after that, staff from the local psychiatric hospital were at the scene, sedating Semykina before taking her away.

During the Soviet era, dissidents were often committed to insane asylums. The practice made a comeback about 15 years ago, and activists say it is increasingly being used to punish political opponents, whistle-blowers, journalists, and those with nonmainstream religious views.

Human rights groups say the use of psychiatric punishment against political dissidents in Russia surged after opposition groups held nationwide demonstrations in 2012 to protest the reelection of Vladimir Putin as president.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky, with reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Yelizaveta Mayetnaya