(Moscow) – Russian authorities should immediately release the performance artist Petr Pavlensky from involuntary confinement in a psychiatric hospital, Human Rights Watch said today. The Russian authorities should protect his right to due process and unhindered access to legal counsel.

Pavlensky was arrested on November 9, 2015, after he poured gasoline on and set ablaze the front doors of Russia’s Federal Security Service’s (FSB) headquarters, which had previously housed the Soviet KGB. Photographs and videos of Pavlensky’s actions, which he said were an act of performance art called “A Threat,” quickly circulated in Russian and international media and social networks. On January 26, 2016, he was transferred from a pretrial detention facility to the Serbsky State Scientific Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry to undergo a prolonged, involuntary psychiatric evaluation, his lawyer, Olga Dinze, told Human Rights Watch.

“Pavlensky’s forced psychiatric confinement is a sinister reminder of the Soviet legacy of punitive psychiatry, and the abuse of psychiatry to silence critics,” said Tanya Cooper, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It violates both his right not to be arbitrarily detained and his right to health.”

Artist Pyotr Pavlensky holds a gas can during a protest action titled "Threat" in front of the FSB's headquarters in Moscow, Russia, on Monday.

On February 3, 2016, the Tagansky District Court in Moscow extended Pavlensky’s pretrial detention on vandalism charges until March 6. Dinze said that Pavlensky was not able to be at his custody hearing because he was in the psychiatric hospital. Russian authorities should immediately release Pavlensky from the hospital and grant him access to his lawyer and family.

Pavlensky said that his action on November 9, 2015, was intended to draw public attention to the FSB’s misuse of terrorism charges to persecute government critics. He challenged the authorities to charge him with terrorism, but was charged with vandalism motivated by ideological hatred, which carries a punishment of up to three years in prison.

Pavlensky had been held since his arrest in Butyrka, a pretrial detention facility in central Moscow. Dinze told Human Rights Watch that she had not seen her client since mid-December because the facility is overcrowded and lawyers must wait for hours, and sometimes days, to see their clients.

The day after Pavlensky was transferred to the Serbsky Center, the hospital announced a quarantine due to a flu epidemic in Moscow and other parts of Russia. Dinze told Human Rights Watch that when she asked the hospital administration to allow her to see Pavlensky, the hospital refused, citing the quarantine. Dinze complained to the Office of the Prosecutor General and the Health Ministry, but has not yet received a response. She said that Pavlensky’s psychiatric evaluation could take up a month, or even longer.

Pavlensky’s partner, Oksana Shalygina, told Human Rights Watch that she had not been able to see Pavlensky since a court hearing on December 24. She said that she was not able to visit him regularly before that because an investigator demanded that she testify as a condition for being allowed to visit.

Pavlensky voluntarily underwent a psychiatric evaluation at the Serbsky Center about a year ago for another criminal case related to his performance activism, Dinze said. The previous psychiatric evaluation found he had no mental health condition.

During the Soviet era, the authorities frequently misused psychiatry to silence critics. The Serbsky Center was the chief institution in the Soviet Union responsible for psychiatric evaluation of people deemed “socially dangerous,” and thus doomed thousands of people, including hundreds of dissidents, to indefinite involuntary confinement.

Over the last several years, Pavlensky has staged several other anti-government performance acts, through which he protested increasing government restrictions of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. In one of the performances, he nailed his scrotum to the ground of Red Square. For another, he cut of a part of his earlobe while sitting on the Serbsky Center’s fence. 

“Pavlensky is facing the very violations he had denounced in his performance art,” Cooper said. “Instead of hiding him in a psychiatric hospital, Russian authorities should ensure that his right to due process is protected and all the safeguards to which he is entitled as a detainee are respected.”