Ill as charged

August 21, 2007

Larisa Arap wrote an article exposing abuses at a Russian psychiatric hospital, and as a result she found herself forcibly incarcerated in that same hospital. Her family said she was beaten and injected with mind-blurring drugs.

She was released yesterday, after 46 days in psychiatric hell, but this is hardly a victory for those trying to resist Russia's return to some of the worst practices of the Soviet era. It's more like a warning of what may be to come.

Detention in psychiatric wards and heavy drug sedation became a real threat facing Russian dissidents from the 1950s onward. The West condemned it as barbaric, but the Soviets argued that anyone who was unhappy in their utopian society was by definition insane. With the fall of communism the practice was dropped, but Ms. Arap's case looks like a frightening harbinger of its revival.

She wrote her article, titled "Madhouse," about a mental hospital in Russia's far north, near the city of Murmansk. It was published in a newspaper called Dissenters' March, which is published by an opposition coalition led by Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion. She had earlier been a patient at the hospital. This time, though, she was taken there by police; her family maintains there was nothing wrong with her.

She was lucky to have advocates arguing her case. The Russian human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, appointed a commission to examine Ms. Arap, and when it presented its conclusion that she was a victim of "police psychiatry," he called for her release. A court at first refused to consider it. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists likewise appealed for her freedom.

Now that she has in fact been allowed to go home, she still must return to court tomorrow for another hearing on her case.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the forces of repression have from time to time trotted out one or another of the old ways. Sometimes they're beaten back - as in the case of the novelist Pavel Astakhov, who portrayed corrupt cops in his most recent work and as a consequence faced prosecution for libeling the police, until the Moscow prosecutor's office dropped the whole business. Ms. Arap, as well, may have genuinely won her freedom in the end.

But in the meantime a point has been made, and at such a price that anyone would have to think twice before following the example of either of them. That's how tyranny works.

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