MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian opposition activist told Reuters on Tuesday from inside a psychiatric hospital that she was being held there against her will because she had blown the whistle on abuse in mental health care.
Larisa Arap of the anti-Kremlin group United Civil Front and her colleagues say she is a victim of a local vendetta by healthcare workers after she gave an account to a newspaper alleging patients at another psychiatric unit in the same region were beaten and raped.
The full details of the case are not known, but Arap’s detention has caused an outcry among Kremlin opponents who say it echoes the Soviet practice of confining political dissidents in mental institutions to keep them quiet.
Sounding exhausted but coherent, Arap spoke to Reuters on a mobile telephone from the psychiatric ward near the city of Murmansk, on the edge of the Arctic Circle, where she has been since July 5.
She said her problems began when she went to see a doctor to get a certificate testifying she was in sound mental health — a standard requirement in Russia for renewing a driver’s license.
“She (the doctor) called the police. They kept me by force, then an ambulance was called, they bundled me in there and brought me here where I was beaten,” Arap said on the telephone she had borrowed from a visitor.
“I feel unwell but I am trying to hold out. But my strength is dying away,” Arap said.
Yelena Vasilyeva, a fellow opposition activist who has visited Arap in hospital, said doctors had forcibly injected Arap with drugs.
A photograph, apparently taken in the hospital and sent to Reuters by Vasilyeva, showed Arap looking tired and bedraggled.
The United Civil Front said Russia’s official human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, had decided to send a commission to investigate Arap’s case. Lukin’s office was not available to confirm this.
It is not known if Arap has a psychiatric condition. The chief doctor at the clinic where she is being held refused to discuss her condition, citing patient confidentiality.
Arap herself said in a newspaper article published in June that in 2004 she had sought psychiatric help because she was suffering from stress.
But she and her colleagues say healthcare workers now falsely diagnosed her with mental problems as revenge for the comments she made to the newspaper about abuse.
“This is all because of the article in the newspaper,” Arap told Reuters on Tuesday.
The chief doctor at the clinic where Arap is being held, though he refused to talk about her medical case, told Reuters he was outraged by what he said were the unfounded claims she made in the article.
“This is libel. As we are representatives of a state medical institution, they are libelling Russia,” Yevgeny Zenin said.
The United Civil Front accuses President Vladimir Putin of trampling on civil rights and democracy, and police regularly detain its activists for holding unauthorised street protests.
There has been no suggestion that the Kremlin ordered Arap’s detention. Analysts say that in Russia, local officials are able to abuse their positions to settle private scores because rights and laws are only patchily observed.