5-3-2013By Christopher Plummer
A. Whitney Ellsworth Fellow
On September 14, 2012, Ruslan Makarov, a journalist for the Siberian newspaper Listok, was forcibly committed to a psychiatric hospital. Prosecutors claimed that Makarov’s satirical comments directed at the region’s governor, Alexander Berdnikov, were a threat upon Berdnikov’s life and charged the journalist with threatening to commit a murder “motivated by political hatred.”
The Makarov case shows that punitive psychiatry, once infamous during the Brezhnev era of the Soviet Union, is still used in Russia as a method for dealing with voices of dissent. Shortly after his incarceration, the journalist escaped from the mental institution, only to be arrested again and placed in a standard detention facility.
According to the investigators, Ruslan Makarov “disagreed with the United Russia Party’s political activities” and in 2011-12 had systematically published articles aimed at “destabilizing the work of the Altai Republic’s governor.” In reality, the lawsuit against the journalist is underpinned by Listok’s history of criticizing Berdnikov during its coverage of regional corruption cases. The additional charges of “political hatred” make this case just one more example of Russia’s abuse of its nebulous “extremist” laws. By classifying the crime as extremist, the authorities are lumping together Makarov’s writings with violent hate crimes by ultranationalist youth.
The use of punitive psychiatry was finally deemed illegal in Makarov’s case, but the charges against the journalist remain. Makarov had been released on bail pending trial, only to have prosecutors successfully plead for his return to detention.
Human Rights First urges Russia to fulfill its international obligations to protect a free press and to reform its often misused anti-extremism legislation to prioritize violent crime.