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Whistle-Blower's Case Revives Concerns Of Punitive Psychiatry In Russia

Is Russia returning to the Soviet practice of institutionalizing dissidents and troublemakers?
Is Russia returning to the Soviet practice of institutionalizing dissidents and troublemakers?
The whole process took less than an hour.

At 10:26 a.m. on March 18, Lyudmila Popkova was handed a piece of paper ordering her to appear before Moscow Judge Tatyana Neverova. At 11 a.m. the same day.

Hustled off to court by investigators, Popkova spent 15 minutes in front of Neverova at the Tverskoi district court. She was not allowed to speak. All her attempts to object were dismissed.

In the blink of an eye, the judge ordered Popkova remanded to a Moscow psychiatric hospital for up to 30 days of "evaluation."

Popkova, a labor union leader who got into trouble with the authorities after exposing corruption in the Kremlin administration, was released on April 9.

"It is a strange life. I wouldn't advise anyone to go through it," Popkova says. "You enter a state of shock when a healthy, normal person is placed in a ward with the mentally ill, with drug addicts, with alcoholics."

Russian law makes it easy for prosecutors -- with the help of compliant judges -- to send people like Popkova away for a month in a psychiatric hospital. And there are indications the practice is becoming an increasingly common tool in the country's various campaigns against corruption, extremism, and political dissent.

Lyubov Vinogradova, executive director of Russia's Independent Psychiatric Association, which monitors psychiatric practice, worries about the return of a form of the notorious Soviet-era practice of institutionalizing dissidents.

"I'd say that the [practice] is really being used more and more," Vinogradova says. "But it isn't happening in the brutal form of [Soviet times] when people who expressed their opinions were put into forced treatment, declared incompetent, accused of some sort of crimes. Now it is done quite differently, but all the same...."

Blowing The Whistle

Lyudmila Popkova's odyssey began in late 2009 when she made the fateful decision to become a whistle-blower.

Lyudmila Popkova
Lyudmila Popkova
At the time, she was the chairwoman of the labor union of the presidential administration, the government apparatus, the Federation Council, and other top-level government institutions. That's when she discovered that an accountant in her department named Tatyana Baryshnikova had been given ownership of a Moscow apartment that belonged to the presidential property office.

Popkova started an investigation, concluded that the documents authorizing the transfer were invalid, and filed a formal complaint. In early 2010, she was called into the office of Sergei Dubik, head of the presidential administration's human resources department. She was given two days to clean out her desk.

In May 2010, a criminal investigation was opened -- against Popkova. She was accused of embezzling up to 1 million rubles ($33,000). Popkova flatly denies the allegations, and that investigation has been under way for nearly three years. Her "evaluation" at Moscow's Alekseyev Psychiatric Hospital No. 1 was ordered in connection with those accusations.

(The judge who ordered Popkova's evaluation, Neverova, is no stranger to controversy -- late last year she acquitted the prison doctor who was charged with refusing adequate medical care to whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.)

A case has also been opened against Baryshnikova. However, although she is the subject of an arrest warrant, Russian authorities have not been able to locate her.

The Shrink Turns

But Popkova's case is by no means unique. In September 2012, Siberian journalist Ruslan Makarov was sent for psychiatric evaluation after his personal psychiatrist purportedly told investigators he had threatened to kill Altai Republic Governor Aleksandr Berdnikov.

"In Ruslan Makarov's case in Altai, the psychiatrist who was his personal doctor was in a way responsible for initiating the case in the first place because she reported something that he told her in a private session," explains Innokenty Grekov, a program associate at the U.S.-based NGO Human Rights First who has been following the case.

"Incidentally, she then was transferred to a bigger and better hospital in the regional center where she was also responsible for overseeing [Makarov's] analysis."

Although Makarov still faces charges, a court ruled after the fact that his forced psychiatric evaluation was illegal because prosecutors had dispensed with the required court hearing.

In another case, Karelian human rights activist Maksim Yefimov was sent for evaluation after publishing a December 2011 blog post that was critical of the Russian Orthodox Church. After he was released, he fled to Estonia and is seeking political asylum.

Financial Accusations

The Independent Psychiatric Association's Vinogradova says prosecutors have no trouble securing orders for psychiatric evaluations. "If [investigators] want to, they can arrange an evaluation in practically any case. The only thing that is needed is an opinion about someone's mental health," she notes.

"An investigator can always write that a person is behaving strangely, that he doesn't like the way the suspect is smiling or how he answers questions or something else like that -- that's enough to have someone one sent for an evaluation."

Popkova says her 28-day evaluation was ordered because officials determined that she has "a nervous, anxious expression" and "slumped shoulders."

Yelena Kotova, a former Russian representative to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, now finds herself in an institution.
Yelena Kotova, a former Russian representative to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, now finds herself in an institution.
While in Alekseyev's Ward 6, Popkova crossed paths with Yelena Kotova, a former director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), who was also undergoing a 28-day psychiatric evaluation ordered by Moscow's Tverskoi district court.

Kotova is accused of commercial corruption in connection with a $95 million EBRD loan to businessman Sergei Chernikov in 2009. Chernikov alleges she made the loan conditional on his willingness to hire an offshore consulting firm for $1.5 million.

He has reportedly turned over tapes of his negotiations with the EBRD about the loan to Russian authorities. According to the Rosbalt news agency, the EBRD has also submitted documents linking Kotova to several offshore firms that received payments that coincided in timing with various loans she was overseeing.

Kotova denies the allegations and says that the EBRD is targeting her for her criticism of its work in Russia.

Putting On The Pressure

Vinogradova, of the Independent Psychiatric Association, says, however, that such practices are much more common in low-level cases and in provincial cities. "When we are talking about punitive psychiatry now it is used mostly not in some sort of political cases, but in cases connected with disputes over apartments or some sorts of family disputes," she says, "this is fairly widespread and we often see in such cases inappropriate decisions of experts."

She adds that the purpose of the tactic seems to be to pressure and intimidate people.

Popkova's case is still very much up in the air. The hospital's preliminary findings indicate that she is completely healthy, but Popkova knows this decision may not appear on the document that ultimately makes it to a judge.

"I'm used to the idea that people aren't always honest and tell you the truth. I am used to that already. But I think that in this case they themselves are not interested in writing anything outrageous," Popkova says.

"They told me that everything is OK with me. I asked why they kept me there for 30 days then. 'Well, you are in a high-profile case so we can't have any complaints directed at us [from the Investigative Committee].'"

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Anna Kachurovskaya and RFE/RL correspondent Tom Balmforth contributed to this story from Moscow

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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