Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazak Police Threaten Dissidents With Psychiatric Confinement

Image-conscious government avoids labelling critics as mentally unstable, but police in provinces still use forcible committal as threat.
By Andrei Grishin

The practice of locking away regime critics or perceived troublemakers in psychiatric hospitals largely ended with the collapse of the Soviet system two decades ago, but human rights defenders report that some police are still trying to apply the tactic in Kazakstan. 

These days, it is not high-profile dissidents who are referred for compulsory psychiatric care, but political activists far from the two main cities Astana and Almaty, and individuals who ask too many awkward questions.

Unlike the old days, however, many doctors are refusing to approve an order for treatment of individuals who they can see are sane.

In December, 64-year-old Alexander Bondarenko was detained by police and sent to a psychiatric clinic in the city of Karaganda in central Kazakstan.

A committed communist, Bondarenko was detained while protesting against the dismantling of a statue of Vladimir Lenin in Karaganda’s central squire.

He was then held for three days at the regional psychiatric clinic, where staff told him police had filed a statement that he was a danger to the public and must undergo a compulsory assessment of his mental state.

Doctors reassured him that they would not force any treatment on him, and allowed him to leave.

Bondarenko filed a case against the police on grounds of mistreatment, but the case was thrown out for lack of evidence.

This was the second time Bondarenko had been forcibly taken to the psychiatric clinic. On the first occasion, five years ago, he was detained while supporting a miners’ protest.

There have been similar cases in Karaganda, the centre of a mining region where left-wing sentiment is strong. In October 2010, Tahir Muhamedzyanov, deputy head of a miners’ rights group in Shakhtinsk, a town near Karaganda, was taken to the same clinic by police. Once again, doctors pronounced him to be sound of mind and he was able to leave.

In 2007, Anatoly Prilepsky was held for almost a week in a closed ward in Karaganda after campaigning for a public commemoration of the end of the Soviet Union.

The overall impression is of a police force that seeks to label troublemakers as mentally unstable. IWPR submitted a formal request to the provincial police department in Karaganda to find out whether this was in fact policy, but although government agencies are required to reply within a set period, no response was forthcoming.

Kairat Abdrakhmanov, the head doctor at the clinic in Karaganda, confirmed that there were cases where police accompanied individuals brought in for possible treatment. But he said the prosecution service had conducted an investigation in January following allegations of forcible admissions, and had found no wrongdoing by medical staff.

“We understand that forcible treatment is a serous matter, so we adhere to the law,” he added.

The head of the Karaganda branch of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, Yuri Gusakov, recalled the region’s sad history as the location of a major Gulag prison camp complex where political prisoners were held in Soviet times.

“The absurd policy of placing dissidents in clinic is still being practiced by our police,” he said. “There’s generally no justification for it whatsoever.”

In the western city of Uralsk, local resident Alexander Puzdrikov accuses police of trying to get him committed in January. Now 37, he has been trying for some years to claim subsidised housing, to which he is legally entitled because he was brought up in a children’s home.

On January 6, he joined a small protest in Uralsk against plans for a referendum to extend the term in office of Kazakstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbaev. The other participants – journalists and opposition members – were arrested and either fined or given five days in jail. (See Taking a Stand in Kazakstan on the experience of another participant, journalist Sanat Urnaliev.)

Puzdrikov alleges that police planted drugs on him when he was detained, and then threatened to press charges unless he accompanied them to the psychiatric clinic and signed a consent form for treatment. However, a doctor at the centre issued a written statement that no treatment was needed, and Puzdrikov was released.

The police department in Uralsk denied that any officers were involved in the incident, and refused to comment further.

Puzdrikov has now filed a complaint against the police with the prosecution service.

Cases in remote parts of Kazakstan often go unnoticed, but the detention in 2007 of Nurlan Alimbekov, a writer from the southern city of Shymkent, sparked a campaign by media and human rights groups including the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Alimbekov was placed in a high security psychiatric institution after he was accused of sending emails said to have insulted President Nazarbaev and incited ethnic hatred.

The international reaction appears to have warned officials at national level off using the psychiatric care system to confine dissidents.

“It is clear that the [national] authorities… have learned from their mistakes and have no desire to create an unwanted international outcry,” freelance journalist Andrei Sviridov told IWPR. “But things are altogether different matter in the provinces, where nothing has changed and the law-enforcement officers are used to doing whatever they like.”

Sviridov said the police targeted local NGO activists, left-leaning opposition supporters and people pursuing individual claims.

“They’re well aware that these dissenting individuals are not of a high enough profile to prompt an international campaign,” he added.

Andrei Grishin is a staff member at the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.