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It’s rare that a high-level Russian official takes a public stand for justice vis-a-vis the law enforcement establishment. But Russia’s health minister did just that.

The minister, Veronika Skvorstova, publicly endorsed the acquittal of a doctor charged in Krasnoyarsk for prescribing an opioid pain reliever to a man with terminal cancer when his regular physician refused to issue him a prescription.

The patient, Viktor Sechin, died in 2011 – the same year Dr. Alevtina Khornyak, and a pharmacist, Lidia Tabarintseva, faced drug trafficking charges for helping him get pain relief. On October 31, after a three-year legal battle, Khornyak and Tabarintseva won their case.

In a television interview, Skvortsova praised Khorinyak, saying that she “did the right thing and it’s the right thing that she has been acquitted.” And, the minister continued, “Those who allowed shortages of [the medication] are the ones who should stand trial … they were not only witnesses; they were complicit” in causing a dying man to suffer.

Skvortsova finally voiced what has been obvious from the very start: instead of prosecuting the two women for fulfilling a dying man’s right to be free from pain, authorities should have made sure that no patients suffer in absence of pain treatment.

Skvortsova’s words would resonate, but offer little comfort, for the family of Vyacheslav Apanasenko, a retired admiral, who shot himself in February because he could not get medication to alleviate his cancer-related pain. “I ask not to blame anyone except for the Health Ministry and the government,” he wrote in his suicide note.

Dr. Khorinyak told me several weeks ago that overly punitive regulations on narcotic drugs and the predatory conduct of the federal drug control service, FSKN, instill fear in Russian doctors and make them choose between the wellbeing of their patients and their own safety from prosecution.

In her interview, Skvortsova said that there was a mutual “understanding” between the Health Ministry, the FSKN, and the Interior Ministry that the situation needed to change. It is bitterly ironic that on the same day as Skvortsova’s interview, a Krasnoyarsk prosecutor challenged Khorinyak’s acquittal.

Palliative care is a human right, and doctors providing it should not be treated as criminals. Russia should relax excessive controls on certain pain relief medications and let doctors like Alevtina Khorinyak spend more time with their patients, and not in the courtroom. 

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