Soviet tradition of punitive psychiatry continues in Russia-occupied Crimea.

On 8 October, Crimean Tatar leader and Putin’s political prisoner Nariman Dzhelyal ’s lawyers found that he had been covertly transferred to a psychiatric clinic against his will. Earlier, Mr Dzhelyal refused to undergo a psychiatric evaluation since there are no grounds for it.

Nariman Dzhelyal’s lawyer Nikolai Polozov sees the detective’s decision to hold the expertise as a punitive practice to suppress the prisoner’s will and aggravate his detention conditions.

This practice is nothing new to the Russian Themis; it traces back to Soviet times, and is making a resurgence in Putin’s Russia.

There is no basis for moving Nariman Dzhelyal to the psychiatric hospital. This is not the opinion of his lawyer but the provisions of Russian legislation. Now, a bit of law to elucidate the point.

Under Article 196 par. 3 of Russia’s Criminal Procedural Code, the psychiatric expertise of the defendant is a must when there is doubt that she is sane or able to independently defend her rights and legitimate interests in court.

This “doubt” may be, subject to par. 6 of the decision of the plenary of Russia’s Supreme Court dated 7 April 2011, information on defendant’s receiving psychiatric care in the past, undergoing training in institutions for persons with mental retardation or disorder, getting a brain trauma, acting or speaking in an odd way that might indicate mental disorder, or own testimonies on their psychopathological worries.

According to Polozov, this is not the case for the Crimean Tatar leader. The lawyer deems Nariman Dzhelyalov’s expertise as a punitive measure and draws a parallel with the case of Ilmi Umerov , Deputy Head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis and a former political prisoner of the Kremlin, who was groundlessly placed in a psychiatric clinic. There, Mr. Umerov suffered from appalling conditions in the environment of mentally ill persons.

Among other Crimean Tatars groundlessly placed in a psychiatric hospital by Russian occupation authorities is Oleksandr Sizikov, the Kremlin’s political prisoner with blindness and special dietary needs. In 2020, he was put in a clinic for a month, supposedly for a psychiatric assessment, which was akin to the torture of the young man. Remzi Memetov, a Crimean Tatar wrongfully accused of terrorism, was also sent to a forced forensic psychiatric examination. Weeks-long punitive psychiatric detention of Yashar Muyedinov and Raim Aivazov is another example of punitive psychiatry used against Crimean Tatars.

Punitive psychiatry as one of the elements of Russia’s repressive machine is not a novelty. The USSR resorted to this means in its fight against dissidents and human rights activists. Made-up psychiatric diagnoses allowed the authorities to steer clear of public processes by arbitrarily isolating a defendant in a clinic. Moreover, the state could easily put the matter of political prisoners aside by declaring those who disagreed not prisoners but insane. In the 1960s, the practice became the main instrument to gag dissent.

There is evidence testifying that in the Soviet Union, punitive psychiatry has been in use since February 1919. Then, courts-martial rendered the following verdicts: “Taking into account the hysterical condition of the defendant … to isolate [them] from political and public activities by imprisoning them in a sanatorium …”

The Kazan Prison Psychiatric Hospital of the NKVD USSR was the first secret place of Soviet retaliatory psychiatry. Established in 1869, the mental hospital was transformed into an isolator for those disagreeing and thus, posing a danger to the authorities.

Kazan Prison Psychiatric Hospital. Photo: RFE / RL

In the 60s, a young mathematician from Kirghizia named Leonid Pliushch was deemed a “threat” for the state.

Together with his peers, they ran a clandestine publishing project to criticize the regime. Leonid would speak up for political prisoners by writing letters to newspapers and state bodies. For that, he was dismissed from the research institute. And in 1972, Mr. Pliushch saw searches in his home, accusations of anti-Soviet propaganda, and finally imprisonment in Dnipropetrovsk High Security Psychiatric Hospital for alleged sluggish schizophrenia.

Dnipropetrovsk High Security Psychiatric Hospital. Photo: Memorial

This diagnosis is nothing but a made-up disease not recognised by the international psychiatric community, yet popular in the USSR. It was “found” by Andrei Snezhnevsky , a Soviet doctor, to make the insane out of dissidents.

Notably, Mr Pliushch was recognised healthy by Western doctors, after he had been expelled from the state in 1976.

“There is a mess here (id est total lawlessness). If you get in the way of nurses or doctors way, you are doomed. They will pump you with medicine, sanitation workers will beat you and not let you use the restroom. All the politicians stay silent, so you keep quiet, too. No will for living, for fighting remains. Only one thing is left: not to forget what you have seen here, not to become embittered, and not to give up,” wrote Pliushch three years following his release.

Indeed, the conditions in a psychiatric clinic where Nariman Dzhelyal is to stay, will do no good to him. This decision will be appealed by Mr. Dzhelyal’s lawyers.

Dzhelyal, the Deputy Head of the Mejlis, was detained in Pervomayskoye village of Simferopol region of Crimea on 4 September for trumped-up sabotage charges. Dzhelyal’s lawyer Emine Avamilyeva commented that her client was subjected to psychological pressure. Namely, following the arrest, he endured many hours in a basement, handcuffed, and with a bag over his head. Allegedly, Mr Dzhelyal is involved in the explosion in a gas pipeline in Perevalne village near Simferopol on 23 August.

How Crimean Tatar leader Dzhelyal swelled the ranks of Ukrainian “saboteurs”

These particular accusations are not an accident. By likening Ukrainians to saboteurs, Putin aims at intimidating the population of Russia and Crimea.

As luck would have it, the alleged gas line rupture occurred on 23 August — on the day when Kyiv hosted an inaugural summit of the Crimea Platform, a first-of-the-kind international platform to advance the peninsula’s de-occupation, that gathered over 40 foreign participants. According to Refat Chubarov , Head of the Mejlis, the abduction and arrest are the Kremlin’s revenge for the Crimea Platform.

Crimea Platform – mere formality or workable mechanism to recover Ukraine’s peninsula?

The persecution of Nariman Dzhelyal is part of Russia’s systemic attack on the Crimean Tatar people, ethnic Muslims, and indigenous people on the peninsula, who put up the primary resistance to Moscow’s occupation since 2014. The means of attacks vary, with arbitrary imprisonment being one of the most common ones.

As of today, 127 Crimeans are imprisoned in the peninsula or Russia on political, national, and religious grounds.

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