On Friday April 6,2001 Elena Urlaeva, a member of the non-governmental Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, was forcibly detained in the locked ward of the main psychiatric hospital in the capital, Tashkent.
"This is a throwback to the ugliest Soviet repression against the dissident movement of the 1970s," said Holly Cartner, Executive Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.
A letter written by Urlaeva was smuggled out from the psychiatric hospital. According to the letter, police arrested her as she left her home at approximately 9:00 a.m., and brought her to Tashkent's Mirzo Ulugbek district police headquarters, where officers beat her, confiscated her documents, and interrogated her. From there the police transferred her to the Municipal Clinical Psychiatric Hospital no. 1, where on April 7 a medical commission, in which the deputy district police chief took part, ordered Urlaeva to undergo "compulsory treatment." The Mirzo Ulugbek district court in Tashkent confirmed this decision the following day.
The head doctor, Professor Khairulla Khusankhujaev, reportedly denigrated Urlaeva and her fellow human rights activists during the medical commission, and stated that Urlaeva was fulminating against the nation's president. Urlaeva quoted him as saying, "I've seen many demonstrators with placards during my forty years, but in the psychiatric hospital they always quiet down and stop speaking out."
According to Tolib Iakubov, head of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan who spoke to Urlaeva briefly on Sunday, April 8, the physician who performed the intake interview said that she was perfectly healthy and that she should not be hospitalized. Urlaeva, who until 1999 worked for the national television company, had never been treated for mental illness. When reached for comment, Prof. Khusankhujaev confirmed that Urlaeva was beingheld in his institution, but gave no further information on the case.
The timing and circumstances surrounding Urlaeva's hospitalization raise serious concerns that she is being targeted for her recent human rights activism. Urlaeva first came to the attention of authorities in October 2000, when she severely criticized the government at the Annual Implementation Meeting of the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw. On February 19 police in Tashkent detained her for seven hours, confiscating her passport, several documents and notes pertaining to her human rights activities, and forcing her to sign a statement admitting that these documents were "anti-constitutional." On March 7 Urlaeva led the first in a series of public protests against a road-building project entailing the destruction of private homes in the city, and was on her way to the planned demonstration when police stopped her. On March 20 she announced that she would remain on hunger strike until the municipal government acceded to the demands of those whose homes were slated for destruction. "Clearly, this is another in a long list of government efforts to silence human rights activists and should be condemned by the international community in no uncertain terms," continued Cartner. "They should call for Urlaeva's immediate release."
The Soviet practice of using psychiatric institutions against those who protest government policies became widespread under Brezhnev during the late 1960s, leading to the Soviet Union's expulsion from the World Psychiatric Association in 1983. Uzbek officials continued to misuse forced psychiatric treatment sporadically through the 1980s and 1990s. In 1985, human rights activist Mikhail Ardzinov was subjected to two months of groundless psychiatric detention. In June 1999, police sent Ardzinov to Tashkent's main psychiatric clinic during the course of a nine-hour interrogation session. The Uzbek Code of Criminal Procedure allows for persons under investigation for criminal activity to be held in medical institutions under guard for one month. Professor Khusankhojaev reportedly cited a new decree "on forced psychiatric treatment" which came into effect in January 2001, but did not indicate the term for which persons may be held.