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Civil Rights

'Psychiatric' prisoners want diagnoses reversed

Twenty years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, a group of anti-Soviet Latvians who were sent to psychiatric institutions during communist rule are still waiting to have their diagnoses withdrawn and justice served.

In 1989, when the Iron Curtain was beginning to fall, one of the first documentaries was made about the horrors of the Soviet regime. The film “The Dissident" portrayed a 53-year-old Latvian lawyer who was locked up for years in psychiatric hospitals.

Such treatment, it seems, was not an isolated incident. From the late 1960s to the mid-80s, a group of Latvians were diagnosed with mental illnesses and locked away because of their anti-Soviet views and actions. Today, their diagnoses have still not been revoked.

The subject of that film was Peteris Lazda, now 77 years old. He's still schizophrenic - that is, on paper. He was "diagnosed" back in 1978 after the KGB arrested him. Lazda had written leaflets saying Latvia wanted to leave the Soviet Union, and calling on Moscow to loosen its grip on the republic. After his arrest, during the trial that took place, Lazda said the verdict was merciless.

"The court decided to send me to hospital for indefinite, compulsory treatment - it means confinement for life," he said. "They were hoping that I would die there, [or] that somebody would kill me there."

Lazda was first sent to a psycho-neurological hospital in Riga. He was kept in prison, and eventually sent to psychiatric clinics in Leningrad and Volgograd, in what is present-day Russia.

No escape

The psychiatric hospital in Riga (Photo: Ģederts Ģelzis, DW)

The psychiatric hospital in Riga where Peteris Lazda spent some time before being sent to Russian clinics

"I had a very, very tough time in Leningrad. I met an Estonian who was also locked up. He'd already spent 17 years there and he told me I would never leave the place. You can imagine how that affected me," Lazda said. 

He was forced to take various anti-psychotic medicines like Haloperidol and Aminazin. He said the medication sometimes made him delirious. But that was just one part of the ordeal, he claimed.

"The maintenance staff at the psychiatric hospital were criminals who were put away after committing crimes like robberies and murders. They actually killed some patients," Lazda said. "When that happened a prosecutor would arrive, make a statement, leave, and the case would soon be closed. The victim's remains would be buried on the hospital's grounds."

Returning home

Lazda managed to survive the torture, and was discharged in 1982 after four years in detention. He was able to return home to his wife and daughter. But he couldn't get a proper job because he was still officially certified as being mentally ill, which restricted his work options.

Lazda is one of up to 50 Latvians who were victims of the political abuse of psychiatry under communism. And their records still haven't been cleared. Andrejs Judins, a Latvian member of parliament, wants this injustice to end.

Judins said that the presence of documents diagnosing someone with a mental illness because that person didn't want to serve in the Soviet military or was critical of the communist regime, "then there are grounds to rehabilitate that individual. And that diagnosis and treatment have to be declared false."

Certified sane?

A monument on the former KGB headquarters in Riga, Latvia (Photo: Ģederts Ģelzis
DW)
Ort: Riga, Latvia

In Riga, a memorial marks what was once the KGB headquarters

Judins added that people like Lazda should have their diagnoses revoked on the basis of simply assessing their historic documents. The victims, he said, shouldn't be subjected to any more traumatic experiences, including psychological screenings.

But Biruta Kupca, a professor of psychiatry at Riga's Neurological Hospital disagreed. Examination of documents can establish that people have been persecuted, "but they can't make or cancel a diagnosis of mental illness. Only a certified psychiatrist has the right to do that, and nobody else," Kupca said.

Kupca said she's skeptical such cases even exist.

'Coming to terms with the past'

But historians have said political dissidents were indeed locked away in Riga's psychiatric hospital. Ritvars Jansons from the Museum of Occupation of Latvia said on national radio that it's important to clear the victims' records.

"If we don't openly acknowledge that such people exist in Latvia, then we'll never be able to come to terms with our past," he said.

Politicians have pledged to correct this historic injustice without delay. But Lazda is not enthusiastic about the opportunity of being rehabilitated; in fact, quite the opposite.

Lazda said it's deeply insulting that politicians have taken so long to remember people like him. And, he added, he doesn't need to prove his sanity to psychiatrists whom he doesn't even trust.

DW.DE