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In a return to a Soviet-era tactic of repression, the Uzbek authorities have ordered human rights defender Elena Urlaeva to be detained in a psychiatric institution. Human Rights Watch called on the Uzbekistan government to release Urlaeva immediately.

On August 27, police arrested Urlaeva and charged her with “desecrating state symbols.” Authorities alleged that the long-time rights activist had distributed political leaflets ridiculing the Uzbek coat of arms. Tashkent authorities ordered Urlaeva to be detained and placed in a psychiatric institution to undergo an evaluation of her competency to stand trial.

“This is an outrageous case of politically motivated detention,” said Holly Cartner, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “It is frightening to witness the return of a government practice of labeling people clinically insane because they are critical of the government.”

Human Rights Watch said that the government persecution of Urlaeva is directly linked to her human rights work.

Uzbek authorities placed Urlaeva under house arrest on May 17 to prevent her from participating in a demonstration protesting the government massacre in Andijan that had claimed hundreds of civilian lives four days earlier. On July 13, police officers broke into Urlaeva’s apartment and threatened her with a gun.

Human Rights Watch called on the Uzbek government to immediately release Urlaeva and to drop the charges against her, or grant her a fair trial.

“The government is stopping at nothing to silence the truth about what happened in Andijan on May 13,” said Cartner. “Now it has even resorted to putting a prominent government critic in a mental hospital.”

In the months since the Andijan massacre, Uzbek security forces have arrested, beaten and harassed dozens of rights defenders and political activists, forcing many to abandon their rights work. Many activists have fled the country since May 13, fearing for their safety.

This is not the first time authorities have used psychiatric detention as a weapon against Urlaeva. On April 6, 2001, Urlaeva was detained and forcibly committed to a psychiatric institution; she had been working on behalf of people dispossessed of their homes by city authorities. Foreign governments and human rights organizations decried the move as a crass example of government retaliation against an outspoken rights defender.

After two months of considerable international pressure, Urlaeva was allowed to return home. But the harassment continued. On June 5, 2002, a Tashkent court issued an order for Urlaeva to once again be subjected to psychiatric treatment. The court order was not executed, however, until August 27, 2002, when Urlaeva attended a protest outside the Ministry of Justice. The next day she was forcibly confined in Tashkent City Psychiatric Hospital. Urlaeva was released at the end of December 2002.

Human Rights Watch has documented other instances when the Uzbek government has arbitrarily detained human rights defenders by placing them in psychiatric detention. In March 2005, Larissa Konakova, who had assisted victims of government abuse, was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. The court failed to take into account an earlier court-ordered diagnosis by the hospital stating that she did not require treatment. Fearing long-term forcible commitment in a psychiatric institution, Konakova fled the country. In November 2004, Uzbek human rights activist Lydia Volkobraun was forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation; she was released after two weeks of detention.

Psychiatric detention of government critics, a legacy of the Stalinist era, is a practice reappearing in the most repressive of the former Soviet states. It is specifically designed to suppress any kind of dissent, to silence critical voices.

In Turkmenistan, for example, Gurbandurdy Durdykuliev was forcibly confined to a psychiatric institution in February 2004, after he wrote a letter to President Saparmurat Niyazov and the governor of the Balkan province asking them to authorize a two-day peaceful demonstration “…to express … disagreement with the policies of the President and other senior government officials and urge them to rectify any shortcomings in due course…”

In his letter, Durdykuliev asked the authorities “to refrain from using force against the participants of the meeting.” A month after he sent the letter, Durdykuliev was taken into custody and committed to a psychiatric hospital in Balkanabad city. Authorities later transferred him to a hospital across the country in Garashsyzlyk district in the eastern Lebap province, making it difficult for Durdykuliev’s wife to visit him. Durdykuliev remains in that hospital and is reportedly in poor health.

“The re-emergence of retrograde policies such as forcing dissidents into mental institutions should sound a warning to the international community that the governments of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have crossed a line,” said Cartner.

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