“The choice between psych hospital and prison is highly questionable.” Political prisoner Aleksei Onoshkin on his confinement in a psychiatric hospital
Aleksei Onoshkin. Photo: Memorial

13 January 2024

by Andrei Presnyakov

Source: Spektr.press

Political activist Aleksei Onoshkin has been held at Clinical Psychiatric Hospital No. 1 in Nizhny Novgorod since early October 2022. Aleksei had made no attempt to hide his antiwar position since the very start of the Russian invasion into Ukraine. On 2 March 2022, he went out in Nizhny Novgorod to protest and was detained by security forces.

This was not Onoshkin’s first encounter with law enforcement. In October 2020, he was detained for breaking up a tent at the memorial to journalist Irina Slavina, who on 2 October of that year had committed self-immolation to protest the persecution of her independent publication. Aleksei was trying to prevent the removal of the spontaneous memorial to the journalist.

On 28 April 2022, Onoshkin was detained by E-Centre employees for “defamation of the Russian army” (Art. 20.3.3 of the Russian Code of Administrative Offences). He was fined 40,000 rubles and held for three months in a psychiatric hospital due to allegedly suicidal tendencies.

When Aleksei was released, on 12 August 2022, the investigative department of the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against him under Article 207.3 of the Russian Criminal Code (“fake news” about the Russian Armed Forces). The grounds for this were the publications that Aleksei put on his VKontakte page about the attack on the dramatic theatre in Mariupol.

Onoshkin publicly stated that he was being urged to flee the country, but he would stay in Russia. On 16 August 2022, Aleksei was detained again and taken to the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast Investigative Committee administration and then put in a temporary detention cell until pretrial restraint was chosen for him. The next day, the court remanded Aleksei in custody until 10 October.

On 3 October 2022, by decision of the court, Aleksei was transferred from the remand centre to Clinical Psychiatric Hospital No. 1. It was after this that the investigative department of the Russian FSB Administration for Nizhny Novgorod Oblast opened yet another criminal case against Aleksei Onoshkin for “inciting terrorism,” under Article 205.2, Part 2, of the Russian Criminal Code. The grounds for this were Aleksei’s publications, on the same social network, that allegedly contained “assertions heroizing the terrorist activity of suicide-terrorists and participants in illegal bands active on the territory of the Chechen Republic.”

As a result, in mid-October the court released Onoshkin from criminal liability in both cases and assigned compulsory measures of a medical nature in a specialized psychiatric hospital. Memorial recognized Aleksei Onoshkin as a political prisoner.

In an interview for Spektr, Aleksei talked about the conditions of his detention and about his attitude toward what has happened. 

– As a result of being sent to compulsory treatment, you were released from criminal liability under the two articles of the Criminal Code with which you were charged. If you had had the chance to decide independently whether to be sent to a penal colony or spend time in a hospital, which would you have preferred?

– Yes, they deemed me mentally incompetent and released me from liability on those charges. The choice between psych hospital and prison is highly questionable. Does it matter whether you choose to fall from the eighth floor or the ninth? I don’t know which I would have chosen, but probably the penal colony because that is for a finite length of time.

– Why did the system decide not to issue a guilty verdict against you and send you to a psychiatric hospital?

— It was done so that they could call my opinions “the ravings of a madman.” I spoke out from anti-Putin, antiwar positions. Now my convictions have been officially deemed “mental derangement.”

– What were the conditions of your confinement? How did the staff treat you? Could family visit you?

– They sent me to a specialized hospital for treatment. The conditions here are more comfortable than in a remand centre. The treatment and food are much better. The contingent is much better. The staff treats me with detachment. They know I’m a “political.” Plus, I chose the strategy of interacting with staff as little as possible. 

I haven’t run into prejudices against me, although I’m the sole political prisoner in the whole department. All the patients here are on their own wavelength. They don’t make much contact with me. Right now there’s a quarantine for upper respiratory infection in the hospital so they aren’t letting anyone in to see me. Even my mother. In the summer they let in anyone who wanted to come.

– When a person is in compulsory treatment, an expert commission determines his condition every six months. In your case, has this already happened?

– Never once have I been examined by a commission like that. Moreover, I haven’t been transferred to the specialized psychiatric hospital I was assigned to by the court’s decision, therefore my term of treatment has yet to begin. No one has explained to me why this is happening.

— What does your treatment consist of right now?

— Essentially, no one is treating me. Twice a day they give me medications. Morning and evening. Two small pills. I don’t feel any particular effect from them.

– How do you get information from the outside world?

– Radio. I have a small radio. I can listen to Putin’s propaganda broadcasts. Plus, two hours a day they give me a phone and I can read the Telegram channels.

– Do you feel support from the outside?

– Of course. People have written me many letters, greetings come in on various occasions, and friends came to see me when that was possible.

– When you’re free again, will you continue your public activities?

– Yes, I will continue my public activities because I got into this story as the “town fool” and came out a full-fledged political prisoner. No question. I’m not going to renounce my views.

The old Soviet practice of putting “dissenters” in psychiatric clinics is picking up apparently. Quite recently, last December, a court decision sent Viktoria Petrova to compulsory treatment. Read Spektr’s interview with her lawyer

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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