Vienna, November 24 – Russian psychiatrists called upon to render judgments about the mental state of those accused of crimes are not given the independence they need to perform their responsibilities in a professional manner, a shortcoming, one of their number says, that tragically reflects the problems of the Russian judicial system as a whole.
In an online essay, Emannuil Gushansky, a psychiatrist with 53 years of experience, argues that psychiatric expertise in Russia “is experiencing a crisis which from [his] point of view is the product of the real and unresolved problems of the dependence/independence of justice as a whole” (www.polit.ru/analytics/2009/11/19/psy.html).
Psychiatrists working with the Russian judicial system today, he says, are “deprived of the independence” which they need in order to make “just and well-based decisions.” And because judges lack the training or willingness to explore this issue, “the fate of many thousands” of Russian citizens is thus put at risk.
Any expert, by definition, must have the ability to give his assessments “absolutely independently of any external circumstances and even more independently of the interests of those who have asked for the expertise,” Gushansky continues, regardless of whether that is Gazprom or an individual accused of having committed a crime.
But unfortunately, in Russia today, psychiatrists working with the courts are anything but independent. Such experts “in the first instance are dependent on the judicial and investigative organs which ask them to supply to help and professional assessments but prepared alternative solutions, thereby allowing judges the chance to escape responsibility for sentences or rulings.”
Such dependence is especially dangerous, the senior psychiatrist says, because “psychiatric and psychological-psychiatric conclusions must bear a probabilitistic character,” which is very different from the black and white judgments that investigators, prosecutors, and judges want.
At present, as the Russian judicial system is constituted, “the dependent of experts on the judicial and investigative organs is also connected with the fact that the chance for influence on these experts is unlimited given the lack of any independent control over the operation of the judicial-psychiatric commissions.”
Such commissions “in practice” work in secret, excluding “the principles of glasnost and publicity” that are supposed to be a requirement of the criminal justice system. Moreover and again in violation of constitutional provisions, the defense is not represented even when its interests are at stake.
But even worse, these commissions are kept apart from the judicial process itself. They are simply allowed to analyze “the materials of the case” as assembled by investigators and prosecutors rather than to draw their own conclusions on the basis of the presentation of witnesses or an examination of the accused.
In addition, Gushansky continues, there are numerous and generally undiscussed possibilities for putting pressure on psychiatric experts, in addition to the obvious “possibility of direct bribes,” a phenomenon which “unfortunately, is not being analyzed by the prosecutors and higher judicial instances.”
A clear example of these is to be found, the psychiatrist says, at the Serbsky Scientific Center of Social and Judicial Psychiatry,” where “a system of administrative and corporative influence on the corps of experts” functions, assisted by the sad reality that many of its experts are young, insufficiently qualified, poorly paid, and dependent on their seniors for preferment.
Indeed, he argues, the commission system of judicial-psychiatric expertise as such leads to “collective irresponsibility” given that no one individual expert has to take responsibility for the judgment he offers but can hide behind the anonymity of “the commission,” however poorly that works as a collegial body.
This has led to numerous injustices with innocent people being convicted and those obviously guilty of crimes allowed to roam the streets boldly proclaiming how they have gamed the system and thus undermining still further any confidence ordinary Russians may have that they can get justice.
According to Gushansky, the entire system of commissions should be disbanded. Instead, judges should offer “each side in a case the right to bring in a responsible expert,” and such experts “should be freedom from other work so that they can participate in the judicial process from its beginning to its conclusion.”
In Soviet times, many rights activists and Western scholars focused on the way in which communist officials used psychiatry against political opponents of the regime, a problem that unfortunately has not gone away although it has been for most of the last 15 years far smaller than it was in Brezhnev’s time.
But Gushansky’s comments are a reminder that Russian officials are misusing psychiatrists in other ways in the judicial system, a misuse of expertise and an abuse of power that have seldom attracted much attention but together represent a serious threat to the possibility of justice for any Russian coming into contact with investigators or courts in that country.