Friday, August 22, 2014
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The Trial of Pavel S.

STRASBOURG – On a cold winter day in 2004, a young Russian named Pavel Shtukaturov discovered that a judge had stripped him of the right to speak for himself. Deprived of legal capacity, he was prohibited from acting independently, or at all, in most areas of life. He was no longer able to work, travel, choose his place of residence, buy or sell property, or even marry.   

The judge took away these rights without even informing him – indeed, Pavel only found out a year later. When he sought a lawyer to defend his rights, his mother, who had been made his legal guardian, had him locked up in a psychiatric hospital for seven months. This Kafkaesque turn of events was possible because Pavel has mental health issues in a system that refuses to protect his rights.

In Russia, roughly 125,000 people with mental disabilities are confined to institutions – for life. There are another 165,000 beds in psychiatric hospitals, with some 650,000 hospitalizations per year. But these statistics don’t tell the real story. Only rarely do stories like Shtukaturov’s get out. It is astonishing how little is known about the treatment of people with mental health problems in Russia.

There are no independent inspectorates monitoring these hospitals to protect patients’ rights, and there are no advocacy services on behalf of people with mental disabilities. Moreover, the minds of many hospital directors are as firmly closed as the institutions themselves.

So Shtukaturov’s victory before the European Court of Human Rights on March 27 provides hope that a turning point has been reached.

Back in 2004, when Shtukaturov by chance discovered the judge’s decision, he Googled his way to the only lawyer in Russia who deals with mental health and human rights. The lawyer agreed to represent him. But when he was subsequently detained in a psychiatric hospital, the Russian government refused to allow the lawyer access to his client. Appeals in the Russian courts failed, and he filed a case with the ECHR in March 2006.

The court found that Pavel’s ordeal violated several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, to which Russia is a signatory. This is the first case in which the ECHR has dealt seriously with the deprivation of legal capacity – which often facilitates abuses instead of protecting people from them.

According to the court, depriving someone of legal capacity constitutes a “very serious” interference of a person’s right to private life. In Russia, the only legal option in these cases is “total guardianship,” which is applied indefinitely and cannot be challenged by the adult in question. The court ruled that total guardianship was a “disproportionate” response in Shtukaturov’s case, and its judgment recognized the importance of supplying tailor-made alternatives for people who require temporary or long-term care.

Russian lawmakers should follow the lead of the ECHR decision and work to create in Russian law and practice alternative mechanisms such as advance directives, powers of attorney, and supported decision-making. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – a new human rights treaty that Russia helped draft, but has not yet signed – mandates these alternatives, and represents an opportunity for Russia to undertake crucial human rights reforms on this issue.

Shtukaturov’s story is unique only because he was able to find his way to a lawyer. The ECHR has now cleared a path for the tens of thousands of other people in Russia who suffer abuse at the hands of the very mental health system that is supposed to help them. On taking office, Russia’s new president, Dmitry Medvedev, should order an independent review process to help end the country’s pattern of stigmatizing and discriminating against people with disabilities.

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