Crossroads Asia | Society | Central Asia

A Look at Punitive Psychiatric Detention in Uzbekistan

A new report catalogues the use of forced psychiatric detention to repress human rights activists in Uzbekistan, laying out the cases of six individual to illustrate the abusive practice.

A Look at Punitive Psychiatric Detention in Uzbekistan
Credit: Pixabay

While in a Soviet prison in the 1970s, the Russian-born Vladimir Bukovsky and a fellow inmate, Ukrainian psychiatrist Semyon Gluzman, wrote a 20-page text titled “A Manual on Psychiatry for Dissidents” providing advice for how to avoid being diagnosed as mentally ill during an interrogation. The two men were in jail for charges relating to their raising their voices about the political abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union.

In the text, they wrote: “[T]he Soviet use of psychiatry as a punitive means is based upon the deliberate interpretation of dissent… as a psychiatric problem.” In other words: In the state’s view, you must be crazy to challenge it.

That notion pervaded the entire Soviet Union and outlasted it.

In a new report, the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights outlines the cases of six individuals, who the forum says have been forcibly committed to psychiatric institutions over the years “in apparent retaliation for their human rights work, sometimes immediately after they have exercised their political rights to either protest or petition the Uzbek government for reform.”

Although many of the instances of forced treatment covered in the report occurred during the harsh rule of Islam Karimov, the report also documents cases taking place under the rule of current Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. Mirziyoyev’s ascension to power in 2016 after Karimov’s death was accompanied by big promises of reform. And some reforms have taken place. Beyond economic reforms and a more positive tone toward neighboring states, some political prisoners were released, the government took greater action to confront forced labor in the cotton industry, and Uzbekistan ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Reform, however, is not a destination — it’s a journey, and a long one.

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“Despite some progress,” the Uzbek Forum writes, “the barbaric use of psychiatric detention has persisted.”

Perhaps the most shocking cases is that of Elena Urlaeva, a well-known human rights activist. According to the Uzbek Forum, she has “been detained in a psychiatric hospital no less than 18 times between 2001 and 2017.”

In 2017, while staging a one-person picket on March 1 outside the Uzbek Department of Education a day before a scheduled meeting with representatives of the International Labor Organization (ILO), Urlaeva was arrested. Per the Uzbek Forum report: “She was once again involuntarily committed to a hospital at that time. Neither she nor her attorney were notified of nor present during the commitment hearing. She was also forcibly medicated, but not told what she was given.” Urlaeva was released on March 23 that year. “The relationship between Urlaeva’s unlawful detention in psychiatric wards and the exercise of her political rights is evident,” writes the Uzbek Forum. 

The case of Nafosat Ollashukurova, an activist critical of state corruption and in particular, illegal demolitions, is more recent. In January 2019 she was detained while filming a small protest in Tashkent; in September 2019 she was again detained again under similar circumstances and allegedly assaulted during her detention. After the September arrested, the state prosecutor “requested that the court place her in a psychiatric institution,” asserting that she had begun to show signs of “psychological changes” after her arrest. She was sent 1,000 kilometers (621.4 miles) away to a regional psychiatric center. In late November her request to be freed was denied after a “psychiatrist testified that Ollashukurova exhibited symptoms of ‘mental disorder,’ ‘signs of psychopathic syndrome,’ and ‘paranoid syndrome.’” After her release in late December 2019, Ollashukurova claimed that authorities continued to harass her and her family, “reminding family members her classification as a mental patient meant she could be detained without a court order at any time.”

As the Uzbek Forum outlines in detail, the covered cases “starkly illustrate a pattern of abuse against human rights defenders through the use of forced psychiatric treatment” and violate Uzbekistan’s obligations under various international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture and the recently ratified Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). 

Put simply: Even an individual with a mental health condition is due their rights and should be protected from arbitrary detention. And in the cases covered, “mental illness” was arguably used as nothing but a  pretext. “None of the human rights defenders had a history of mental illness before their detention,” the report notes. But the fact of their detention for a “mental illness” could conveniently be used later to exact the same silencing punishment.

The Uzbek Forum report ends by noting, “A lasting solution to human rights abuses in psychiatric settings must not distinguish between people with or without disabilities. To end abuse of political dissidents, we must create safeguards that will also protect people with disabilities.”