Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

Kazakh Blogger Forced Into Psychiatric Clinic

A court order has sent Aigul Otepova to a psychiatric clinic. Her supporters say its because of her outspoken criticism of the government.

Catherine Putz
Kazakh Blogger Forced Into Psychiatric Clinic
Credit: Pixabay

A blogger in Kazakhstan accused of involvement with a banned opposition movement, who has been on house arrest in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, since mid-September, was forcibly admitted to a psychiatric clinic this week following a court order.

In mid-September, Kazakh activist and blogger Aigul Otepova was placed under house arrest. Authorities in Nur-Sultan alleged that she was “participating in an extremist organization” via support for the banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) opposition movement led by Mukhtar Ablyazov. Otepova denies any such connection and no details about the allegation have been made available.

RFE/RL reported that Otepova’s arrest came after she posted criticisms of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic on Facebook. In a statement, Amnesty International noted that “Aigul Utepova should never have been placed under house arrest and according to her lawyer there are no grounds in Kazakhstani law to do so… Aigul Utepova’s house arrest is disproportionate and appears to be a form of reprisal for her outspoken criticism.

Otepova’s Facebook and YouTube channel have just over 8,000 followers each.

Otepova’s daughter, Togzhan Tuzel, told Amnesty that she worries her mother will be pressured into a confession in the clinic:

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“The lawyer says that Mum shouldn’t give any testimony in his absence when she is in the hospital. But if they give her tranquillizers, where are the guarantees that she will be able to stay strong, that she won’t sign documents and will continue to insist on having her lawyer present?”

On November 12, the court ruled that Otepova be sent to a psychiatric clinic for a month, as RFE/RL phrased it, “to check her mental sanity.” On November 16, her house arrest was extended through December 17 and three days later her appeal against the ruling failed. 

Otepova’s forcible commitment stirs up not-too-distant memories of psychiatry being used by the Soviet Union for the purpose of political repression of dissidents. 

In a 2002 paper for the The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Richard J. Bonnie, now director of the University of Virginia’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry, and Public Policy, examined the “complexities and controversies” of the political abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union and China. 

Of the Soviet period, Bonnie write, “Repression of political and religious dissidents was only the most overt symptom of an authoritarian system of psychiatric care in which an expansive and elastic view of mental disorder encompassed all forms of unorthodox thinking and in which psychiatric diagnosis was essentially an exercise of social power.”

In 1989, amid the opening and shifting political grounds in the era of glasnost and perestroika, Soviet authorities allowed a delegation of American psychiatrists to conduct interviews with suspected victims of Soviet abuse. As Bonnie summarized, “The investigation by the U.S. delegation provided unequivocal proof that the tools of coercive psychiatry had been used, even in the late 1980s, to hospitalize persons who were not mentally ill and whose only transgression had been the expression of political or religious dissent.”

But it’s one anecdote in the paper that’s especially worth drawing attention to:

One of the Soviet psychiatrists was asked whether a patient who had been sent to a special hospital for distributing anti-Soviet leaflets presented a danger to society. “Of course not,” he responded. “Everything the patient distributed can be read in the newspapers now.” As this observation implies, what had changed was the meaning of a socially dangerous act, not the meaning of mental disorder. 

While Bonnie’s paper was directed largely at discussing the contemporary abuse of psychiatry in China, this reflection is important in light of forcible commitments like Otepova’s in Kazakhstan. The “meaning of a social dangerous act” is a political construct, and in the context of Kazakhstan both criticism of the government and even alleged support for DVK are “crazy.” 

Kazakhstan is the only country that dubs the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) an extremist organization. It did so in March 2018, alleging that the group — which is headed by exiled banker Mukhtar Ablyazov — was extremist for “inciting national discord.” In March 2019, the European Parliament in a text on the human rights situation in Kazakhstan referred to the DVK as a “peaceful opposition movement” and urged Nur-Sultan to end “all forms of arbitrary detention, reprisals and harassment against human rights activists, civil society organisations and political opposition movements, including against actual or perceived supporters of DVK.”

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Ablyazov is a deeply divisive character, who has encountered considerable legal troubles across Europe and faced allegations of grand-scale corruption. Meanwhile, the Kazakh government has a storied history of turfing out any upstart political movements that could dream of unseating the ruling Nur Otan party, headed by First President Nursultan Nazarbayev, from power.

Kazakhstan has early parliamentary elections planned for January 10, 2021.