Wednesday 11 August

by Aleksandr Shchipkov, Keston News Service

On 17 June six members of a non-traditional religious organisation called Sentuar were forced to undergo three weeks of criminal psychiatric investigation by order of BORIS LARIONOV, the public prosecutor of the Vyborg region of St Petersburg. MIKHAIL DVORKIN, IGOR ZARKAYEV and IRINA SHAMARINA were sent to Svortsov-Stepanov Psychiatric hospital, while SVETLANA KRUGLOVA, SVETLANA PASTUSHENKOVA and LYUDMILA URZHUMTSEVA were sent to another psychiatric hospital, Territorial Medical Institution No. 2.

The six have been called as witnesses in Criminal Case No. 1109, which has been brought against VLADIMIR TRETYAK, Sentuar's founder and leader, under Article 239 of Part 1 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. This article states that 'the creation of a religious or social organisation whose activity involves violence against citizens, is detrimental in some other way to their health, or which incites refusal to fulfil their civic obligations, or indulgence in criminal activity, is punishable by a fine or by a prison term of up to three years.' Criminal proceedings were begun in January 1999 following complaints by relatives of members of the group.

After scrutiny of Sentuar's doctrines, Keston ascertained that the group is developing a syncretic belief system which includes elements of Hinduism, Slav paganism and parascientific ideology. Their beliefs have no clearly defined eschatological element: the aim of the members of the group is to create a 'unified suprareligious system which will bring about the religious, social and economic unification of mankind.' The group has fewer than 20 members and was registered as a social organisation in 1993.

Members of Sentuar related to Keston how their time spent in psychiatric hospitals with barred windows was reminiscent more of a prison term than a hospital stay. Igor Zarkayev said that staff threatened to shave his head, and Svetlana Pastushenkova said she was given the filthy task of cleaning out the toilets. All six were detained under the constant supervision of hospital staff with seriously ill patients in so-called 'observation wards' of 30 beds. They said that they were not allowed to receive visitors, make telephone calls or walk in the hospital grounds, and that doctors were given access to their personal correspondence in order to help them make individual psychiatric assessments. According to Pastushenkova, DR YELENA KOSTYANAYA said that the doctors had been given the six patients' private papers, letters and lecture plans in order to familiarise themselves with the investigation. Svetlana Kruglova, a single mother, appeared to have suffered the most mental anguish, as she was separated from her ten-month-old son during her three-week hospital stay; she stopped lactating as a result. The child was looked after by friends and Kruglova was forbidden to telephone them. Having difficulty coming to terms with what happened, Kruglova now refers to members of the judiciary and hospital workers as 'fascists'. According to the six, the hospital staff verbally abused them and called them 'sectarians'. Pastushenkova said that only one member of staff, an elderly nurse who was Orthodox, treated them with any kindness, allowing them to telephone their relatives when the doctors were not present.

On 21 June 'Outside the Law', a programme on the local St Petersburg television channel which gives viewers information about various crimes, showed private video footage belonging to Sentuar members which had been removed during a police search of Vladimir Tretyak's flat. A participant in the programme, criminal investigator NINA POPOVA gave a negative portrayal of the religious practices of the group and stated that it was probable that its members used drugs. That no drugs had been found, according to Popova, was simply 'a shortcoming of the investigation'.

According to St Petersburg lawyer GENNADI SOLOVIYEV, the showing of the footage was a violation of the right to privacy. Public prosecutor Larionov told Keston that he had not seen the programme and emphasised that it was the independent decision of the criminal investigator what information was released to the media. He confirmed that no drugs had been found in Tretyak's flat. Tretyak accused criminal investigator Popova of having a prejudiced view of Sentuar and looking for any pretext to close down the group.

Keston asked LYUDMILA RUBINA, chief psychiatrist of St Petersburg, for an explanation of why the case was taking place. She stated that it was now comparatively rare for people to be sent for a psychiatric assessment as part of a criminal case, but that hospitals did not have the right to refuse. When asked why apparently healthy individuals were detained against their will for such a long time among the mentally ill, she gave the following response: 'Enforced hospitalisation (with the police in attendance) is ordered by the public prosecutor, who also decides on the nature of the psychiatric investigation, that is, whether it is conducted as part of a hospital stay or as an outpatient.' Public prosecutor Larionov told Keston that he had ordered hospitalisation because he was afraid that Sentuar members would refuse to attend the outpatients' department.

Rubina also explained to Keston that conditions in psychiatric hospitals did not meet modern standards at present because of lack of funds. She denied overall responsibility for the separation of breast-feeding mother Kruglova from her child, arguing that the decision had been taken by the public prosecutor, and that it would have been detrimental to the well-being of the child to remain in a hospital full of mentally-ill patients. In her view, 'it is not the task of psychiatry to establish to what extent mental illness is connected with a person's religious beliefs.'

Now that this situation has been given so much publicity, Rubina and Larionov seem to be taking a softer line. Although Larionov told Keston that he considers himself to be a 'conservative' who sympathises only with traditional religious beliefs, he emphasised that all legally registered organisations had a right to exist. In addition, he suggested that it would be preferable for the administrative rather than the judicial authorities to resolve any conflicts involving religious groups. Noting that Sentuar had been registered as a social organisation but was in fact conducting religious activity, he maintained that the Ministry of Justice rather than the public prosecutor should now address this issue of regulating the group's activity.

According to Larionov, criminal investigator Popova had gone on holiday, and another investigator had taken over the case. Given that the psychiatric investigation found the members of Sentuar to be without mental illness, he now believed that the criminal case would 'soon be closed'. (END)