The Moscow News
A former inmate of Mental Asylum 5 has accused doctors of forcibly sterilizing female patients. Moscow region prosecutors are looking into the matter. An MN correspondent who studied the case came to the conclusion that sterilization of mentally ill people is a serious problem that requires immediate intervention.
Running From Hell
Oksana Koluzatova is on the phone, holding a long list of numbers that she copied from a directory and searching for a job. She has decided to change her life, become independent, get a job, raise children, become just like everybody else, and finally, find her mother, who abandoned her soon after she was born.
Is the 28-year-old woman who grew up in an orphanage and spent a considerable part of her life in a mental asylum going to make it? “It was hell,” Oksana says, referring to her life at Mental Asylum 5. She is a “Category II mentally disabled invalid” - incapacitated and unemployable, according to doctors.
Oksana has never seen her mother and only remembers her life at the orphanage. Later, she was moved to a special boarding school and then returned to the orphanage. At the age of 15 she was placed in Asylum 5. She ran away from it several times and lived with her aunt. While she was “at large,” she gave birth to three children. All of them are now in institutional custody. When Oksana was pregnant with her third child, the Moscow region’s Vidnoye Town Court stripped her of her parental rights in absentia (she had a five-year old son, Konstantin, and an eight-year old daughter, Aleksandra).
“The court hearing took place in my absence.” Oksana says. “When I gave birth to Zhenya, I took her to City Hospital 1, asking to place her in temporary institutional care for three years. But I lost my parental rights even to her.”
Every Sunday, Oksana goes to a church that is located on the premises of City Hospital 1. Children from the boarding school where her older daughter lives are brought there.
“When I ran away and stayed with my aunt, she quarreled with a neighbor, who called the police just to spite her. They took me to the asylum by force,” Oksana says.
Asylum Director Sergei Ivanovich Sharonov has a somewhat different version of the events: “Oksana returned to us of her own free will. Even though she is legally capable, she is unable to live independently. As for the sterilization, the operation was performed at her request. So everything was done in strict compliance with the law.”
In Oksana Koluzatova’s statement to Ivan Sydoruk, the Moscow regional prosecutor, she said: “In November 2003, I was forcibly sterilized at the central hospital of the town of Vidnoye, based on a referral from Mental Asylum 5, where I live.
”Before they sent me into the operating room, they gave me an Aminazin injection. I had agreed to be injected because otherwise they threatened to ’inject me to death’. When I regained consciousness after the operation and learned what had happened, I asked the doctor why they had done it, saying that I had not given my consent to the operation. He said that I had signed a formal request, which was enclosed with my case history. I only remember being offered a paper to sign, but I did not realize what kind of document it was nor did I understand exactly what I was signing.
“Many other young women at Asylum 5 had the same operation performed on them against their will.”
Oksana is the first woman who decided to take her case to the prosecutor’s office. At a mental hospital where she was moved as a punishment for “bad behavior,” she met a young woman who told her about a commission that looked after disabled people’s rights. Oksana contacted them immediately.
“What Oksana told us was nothing new to us,” Azgar Ishkildin, an employee at the public organization, recalls. “Other patients also told us that young women at the asylum were forcibly sterilized. We appealed to the Moscow regional human rights ombudsman. Together with his deputy, Olga Budaeva, we visited Asylum 5 on October 11.”
MN has in its possession a video cassette with footage of the conversation between the human rights activists and patients of the asylum. The young women say they agreed to be sterilized after doctors threatened to give them painful injections if they refused.
Did you sign any papers stating that you agreed to the operation?
We did, after being threatened: “If you do not sign, you’ll be injected and placed in an isolation ward.”
Were there any pregnant women at the asylum who had a forced abortion?
I was seven or eight weeks pregnant, when they took me there... The [baby’s] head was round, the body quite large, but the arms and legs were so small. I cried.
Olga Budaeva found out that sterilization had been performed on women under 35 who had no children, and that at least one of them was a virgin.
“She was persuaded not to have children because she would allegedly not be able to support them, and so she agreed to be sterilized,” Olga said.
“Under the law, such operations are only allowed at a patient’s express wish if she is legally capable. Incapacitated persons may only be sterilized by a court ruling. It looks like they were forced to sign those statements. During our visit we learned that the asylum’s administration violated other rights of the patients as well — i.e., the right to work and freedom of movement. All of their internal passports are kept in a safe and are temporarily returned to patients only when some official commission arrives or when they have to vote in elections. Some of the young women we talked to had been moved to the asylum from an orphanage. Perhaps if they had an apartment (which the state is supposed to provide them at 18), they could live on their own. Another question is, why was Oksana stripped of her parental rights? She could have just had her rights limited. All of this needs looking into.”
The real question is: Who are the investigators going to believe — the inmates or the doctors?
“If a patient is legally capable, she must write a sterilization request entirely in longhand, not just sign off on a printed form,” Lyubov Vinogradova, executive director at the Russian Independent Psychiatric Association, explains.
“It seems that in this case documents were signed under duress. At the same time, the problem that Oksana Koluzatova’s case brought into focus is extremely complex. Every time mentally retarded women have sexual intercourse and get pregnant a commission should decide on whether this pregnancy may or may not be terminated. The use of contraception could be a way out. But it is very difficult to control its use at mental institutions. It is far easier to sterilize inmates. On the other hand, why should people with mental disorders, who enjoy the same rights as all other citizens, be subjected to forcible sterilization?”
Oksana Koluzatova is going to take her case to a court of law. Now the prosecutor’s office and then the court will have to establish why, when she turned 15, Oksana was moved from an orphanage to a mental asylum. Were there any substantial medical grounds for that? Or was the transfer (as is often the case in such situations) an attempt to deprive a disabled child of her right to an apartment? Furthermore, Oksana is set to appeal the court’s ruling that stripped her of her parental rights.
This is a case where the prosecutor’s office, the human rights ombudsman, and NGOs should pool their efforts and help a person in need. As is well known, disabled children and the mentally disabled belong to one of the most downtrodden groups in this country.