Volume 22, No.4 - Winter 1976
Editors of this issue: J.A. Račkauskas
Copyright © 1976 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Prisoners of Conscience in the USSR: Their Treatment and Conditions. 154 pages, illustrated. Published 17 November 1975 by Amnesty International Publications, 53 Theobald's Rd, London WC1X 8SP, England. Price: 85 pence (US $2.00). Editions in Dutch, German, French and Swedish are available from Amnesty International national sections in the respective countries. Available in the US from Amnesty International, 200 West 72nd Street, New York, New York 10023. Cost is $2.50 including postage.

Conditions in Soviet penal institutions "not only violate international standards for the treatment of prisoners, but fail to achieve the standards established in parts of domestic corrective labor legislation and theory," according to a 154-page Amnesty International report published 17 November 1975.

The illustrated report, Prisoners of Conscience, in the USSR: Their Treatment and Conditions, shows how many of the legal and penal abuses are directed particularly against political and religious dissenters in the Soviet Union.

"There has never in Amnesty International's experience been an acquittal of a political defendant in the USSR," the report says (page 32). Noting the absence of official Soviet statistics on the subject, the report estimates that there are now at least 10,000 political and religious prisoners in the USSR (page 53).

The report, one of the most detailed Amnesty International has ever produced on violations of human rights in a single country, is being published simultaneously in English, Dutch, German, French and Swedish.

Starting with profiles of five typical Soviet prisoners of conscience, the report analyzes the conditions under which prisoners are held in corrective labor institutions (as prisons and colonies are called) and psychiatric hospitals.

In a series of recommendations at the end of the report, Amnesty International urges Soviet authorities to undertake a program of penal reform, starting with a public discussion of the present system. As long as the day-to-day working of the Soviet penal system is treated as a state secret, the report says, it "will continue to generate suspicion and mistrust, certainly abroad and to some extent with the Soviet Union itself" (page 139).

Much of the AI report is devoted to examination of allegations of political abuses of psychiatry in the USSR. Amnesty International welcomed the fact that in 1973 and 1974, many of the best-known "political patients" had been released from psychiatric hospitals. "However," AI says, "recent reports emanating from the USSR indicate that this practice is still in application," (page 136)

AI directs the brunt of its criticism at Soviet legal norms regarding the detention of persons charged with criminal offences and suspected of being mentally ill. According to the report, Soviet law is wholly inadequate in this respect and lays the way open for wrongful incarceration, either on account of political considerations or through the errors and prejudices of psychiatrists and courts.

AI recommends a careful reform of the Soviet criminal and criminal procedural law with an aim of building in safeguards for the rights of genuinely or purportedly mentally ill persons.

The first chapter of the report examines the ways in which Soviet criminal and criminal procedural law are used to imprison Soviet citizens for political or religious deviance. While Soviet authorities frequently deny the existence of political imprisonment in their country, the Soviet criminal codes include a number of plainly political offences, such as "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda" and "anti-Soviet slander".

Articles which restrict and penalize freedom of expression of religious beliefs are those which make criminal "violation of laws on separation of church and state and of church and school" and "infringement of person and rights of citizens under the appearance of performing religious ceremonies".

Such articles are frequently applied to justify the arrest of Soviet citizens accused of possession or distribution of samizdat, participation in political demonstrations, unauthorized attempts to leave the country, instructing children in religious beliefs, etc. Although Soviet law contains reasonably procedural guarantees for fair investigation and trial, these guarantees are regularly violated by the authorities in order to obtain a criminal conviction.

The Amnesty International report takes issue with official claims that the Soviet penal law and theory have resolved the central dilemma facing any penal system: the relationship between punishing prisoners and reforming them.

According to Soviet law, the corrective labor system aims at the "correction and re-education" or prisoners rather than at "the infliction of suffering on them". Yet, the report says, the law itself legitimizes the provision of prisoners with only the biologically necessary minimum amounts of food, and most prisoners are kept in constant hunger.

The low quantity and poor quality of prisoners' food makes them vulnerable to illness and injury, the report says. This situation is often exacerbated by their work conditions.

Prisoners' compulsory labor is theoretically supposed to be the basic means of reforming prisoners. In practice, however, prisoners are required to work at hard physical tasks in conditions which are usually unpleasant and often unhealthy or dangerous.

"The conditions of compulsory labor are such that they discourage rather than enhance the official aim of rehabilitating prisoners," the report says (page 139). The report's chapter on political abuses of psychiatry notes that, until now, leading spokesmen for Soviet psychiatry have refused to acknowledge the potential for abuse which exists in the current relationship between law and psychiatry in the USSR.

Once a person is suspected of being mentally ill, the report says, he is not only denied any right to affect the legal or medical decisions made in his case, but he need not even be told of the latter until the moment he is sent for confinement in a psychiatric hospital. Such persons have "almost no rights other than the passive right to an honest examination and an honest bearing" (page 108).

The AI report states that in a number of cases examining psychiatrists and courts have ruled Soviet citizens to be mentally ill on direct account of their having expressed or acted upon dissenting political or religious beliefs. Often when the friends and relatives of such persons have argued against the verdict of insanity, they have been told that "seeming normality" is not a decisive criterion of mental health.

Most political or religious dissidents whom AI knows to have been forcibly confined to mental hospitals have had no record of violent activity. Yet, at least until recently, Soviet courts have usually chosen the most severe course of treatment for such persons: confinement to a special psychiatric hospital.

The report is deeply critical of the latter institutions, which it describes as being more like prisons rather than hospitals (page 126). The inmates have no access to any mechanism of appeal or complaint. Convicted criminal prisoners are employed as orderlies in a number of special psychiatric hospitals, and there have been numerous reports that these have abused and beaten inmates.

Patients have no influence over their medical treatment, and, in the cases known to AI, their families have no power to countermand the decisions of their doctors, who may even remain anonymous.

"In special psychiatric hospitals, where patients are kept in almost total isolation from society and where non-medical criteria influence the appointment of psychiatrists, the anonymity of psychiatrists and the unchallengeable character of their decisions invite medical practices which are positively dangerous for patients" (page 129).

The most well-documented and disturbing current case is that of Leonid Plyushch, a Ukrainian cyberneticist arrested in 1972 and hospitalized a year later for treatment of "creeping schizophrenia", an official diagnosis frequently made in sensitive cases. The AI report says that since he was hospitalized his physical and mental health have greatly deteriorated as a result of medically unjustifiable treatment with powerful drugs.