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October 22, 2012

Punitive Psychiatry Making a Comeback in Russia?

By Innokenty Grekov

By now, it seems that everyone has heard of the Russian female punk collective Pussy Riot. Yet the band’s prosecution is but an episode in Russia’s ongoing misuse of antiextremism laws directed against dissenting voices. The government’s approach to addressing hate crimes through the prism of extremism has led to erroneous prosecutions of nonviolent dissidents, including journalists, activists, independent media, and religious organizations.

One example is Ruslan Makarov, a journalist who writes for the Siberian opposition-minded newspaper LIStok (“a leaf”). Through his reporting, he digs deep into local corruption cases or environmental concerns and comments on bigger-than-life federal issues. Makarov has been charged with threatening to commit a murder “motivated by political hatred.” His supposed target: the Altai Republic’s Governor Alexander Berdnikov. According to the prosecutors, Makarov first revealed his murderous intent to his psychiatrist in July. He then wrote a satirical “lawsuit” against the governor, which was both published in the newspaper and actually filed with a court. The “threat” expressed in this satirical piece was enough to initiate criminal proceedings against the journalist, and on September 14, he was committed to a psychiatric hospital, from which he escaped several days later.

Ruslan Makarov was captured earlier this week and will now spend at least another two months in pre-trial detention. If found guilty, he can face up to five years in prison. His initial hospitalization was illegal and ordered without a court hearing, following an old Soviet model of forcing dissenters to undergo psychiatric evaluation. This practice seems to be making a come-back. Earlier this year, authorities in Karelia issued a similar order (sans court order) against human rights activist Maxim Efimov, who was accused of criticizing church leaders and believers in an online blog post published in December 2011.

Mr. Efimov was charged with inciting hatred against a religious group and had to flee Karelia—he’s currently seeking asylum in Estonia, a former Soviet republic that had previously given shelter to another blogger prosecuted in Russia for “inciting hatred” against police. In 2011, the interior ministry announced that Savva Terentyev and his family would be granted asylum. Maxim Efimov fears returning to a country where he can be sent to prison or committed to a psych ward for opining that “Karelia is tired of priests.”

Hooliganism statues are often used to prosecute violent hate crimes, including those committed by neo-Nazi skinheads, who are often referred to as “hooligans” by state authorities. Criminal code articles 282.1 (Maxim Efimov), 213.2 (Pussy Riot), or 119.2 (Ruslan Makarov) are all used in prosecuting violent bias-motivated offenses. The difference—and why we label these cases as “misuse”—is that Efimov, Pussy Riot, Makarov, and other dissenting voices in Russia face these very serious charges for nonviolent acts and controversial or blasphemous speech, for which people are routinely sentenced to real prison terms—just ask Savva Terentyev or Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Mariya Alyokhina.

Russia’s misuse of extremism laws is monitored by the Moscow-based Sova Center for Information and Analysis. The group’s 2011 report noted that internet freedom is threatened by Russia’s increased efforts to monitor, investigate, and prosecute online speech. The interregional human rights group Agora often offers legal representation to targeted activists (including Efimov, Makarov, and Pussy Riot’s Yekaterina Samutsevich) and also monitors these cases, having identified 500 examples of restrictions on freedom of access to the Internet or persecution of Internet users for exercising their right to freedom of expression in 2011.

The solution is simple. In order to fulfill Russia’s international obligations to protect freedom of expression, religion, and assembly and association, Russia’s ambiguous antiextremism legislation needs to be amended and the government must prioritize defeating violent crime. Unfortunately, Mr. Putin has signaled intent to double-down on the flawed policy of combating “extremism,” so we’re likely to see more examples of persecution faced by the likes of Maxim Efimov and Ruslan Makarov in the coming years.