Into the iris of insanity: dissent, psychiatry, and the true face of Turkmen totalitarianism
Kakabay Tedzhenov is a former inmate of a psychiatric hospital in Turkmenistan. Telling his shocking story, the 73 year-old-pensioner, now living in a small town in Russia, remembers:
It was cold during winter inside the house I lived and so were the conditions for my neighbors, in Turkmenabad, where I lived. One day I sent a petition to the local authorities demanding better heating in my house in order to put an end to the situation I faced every winter. I went on to send several petitions, but the only result was that the local authorities began to persecute me.
I didn’t give up. I went all the way the President [Niyazov]. One evening [in January 2006] men in white clothes came to my house and forcefully packed me into a car. First I didn’t know what they had in mind but then I was taken into a heavily guarded building and locked in a room with four mentally ill people. It was the infamous Boyunuzyn psychiatric hospital.
I was injected with various drugs, including Amenazin, a drug which caused me terrible pain and health problems. I got sick and was taken for surgery, after which I was returned [to Boyunuzyn]. In total, I spent ten months in Boyunuzyn. I owe my release to the intense advocacy of rights groups who protested my detention.
Two months after Tedzhenov’s release, Niyazov suddenly died. It seemed a fitting capstone to the story. Yet, Tedzhenov was neither the first — nor the last — prisoner of conscience to be subjected to psychiatry as a form of torture.
Indeed, the abuse of psychiatry for political purposes gets less attention in Turkmenistan than other “traditional” methods of repression, such as imprisonment and torture.
Well-known names include Durdymurat Khojamuhamedov, an opposition activist, Gurbandurdy Durdykulyev, a civic activist, Sazak Durdmuradov, a local correspondent for Radio Free Europe, and Nurmukhammet Agaev, accused of having advertised an “enemy radio station”, all were the victims of punitive psychiatry. They were all eventually released.
There may be many more others whose cases are unknown and who may be languishing behind the high walls of the many mental institutions across the country. A source acquainted with the situation remarked to me on condition of anonymity:
It was certainly a positive step when Turkmenistan abolished the death penalty in 1999. But people who have fallen out of the grace of the regime are buried alive in pyschiatric facilities and prisons in an utmost inhuman and immoral way.
The authorities have actually been refining this Soviet-era practice, not to mention finding innovative ways to legally legitimize its use. Farid Tuhbatullin, the chairman of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights, explained to me that today the misuse of psychiatry remains in force in Turkmenistan because it allows for punishment without the necessity of a criminal charge. It also deftly removes the troublesome individuals from society.
Observers to whom I spoke have told me that during the last few years, some psychiatric facilities have been moved from their original locations in towns to more remote and secluded areas . Tuhbatullin gives the example of the clinic in Dashoguz, once the city’s largest, which has now been relocated to Ilyali, 30-40 kilometers away.
A former medical worker says that some of the facilities have even been divided into several parts. He adds,
Paradoxically, Niyazov himself would reveal some information about the conditions in his lengthy speeches transmitted on the state TV. He would call on the people by their names and tell about their ill-deeds. Now that has changed under Berdimuhamedov.
Halmurat Soinov, a former member of Turkmen parliament, speaks of increased secrecy about the conditions in mental clinics:
Earlier, we would hear from time to time about the conditions in the Owadandepe prison where the worst conditions for inmates are reported to exist. I personally believe the reason why we don’t hear anymore is because after Niyazov’s death: his head of personal security was arrested and the local guards who once manned these facilities were exchanged for foreign mercenaries, mainly those brought in from Russia.
Who’s really crazy?
Punitive psychiatry seems almost designed to drive insane its mentally healthy victims. Survivors describe appalling conditions, including neglect and abuse. Tedzhenov remembers:
Drug addicts were brought in, 30-40 of them every month. They weren’t receiving treatment however and were subjected to severe beatings and torture. I could hear them screaming. Among the inmates were also serial killers.
As to my conditions, I was not allowed to get up from bed and leave my room. There was nothing besides miserable food and I had to beg for a piece of something to read.
What’s even more disturbing are reports of victims being forcibly injected with mind altering drugs. Such actions are a direct attack on the very solidity of the human person: when propaganda fails, the Turkmen government hopes chemicals will succeed in bending the mind and soul to its will.
But most disturbing of all is what the punitive psychiatry might say about the government that uses it. Of all the methods of totalitarian control, psychiatric torture is perhaps the most revealing of the distorted and narcissistic nature of such regimes.
I propose that when a totalitarian government like Turkmenistan labels its opponents “insane”, it isn’t necessarily being cynical and deceitful, but may actually believe it. Totalitarianism is therefore such a thorough loss of perspective that even the puppet masters can’t see the strings around their own necks.