WASHINGTON - It was just an errand, one more stop to get through the red tape, said Larissa Arap.
Arap, a rights activist in Russia, said she was seeking a driver's license, and all she needed was a routine signature from a doctor certifying that she was in good health. But instead of complying, a psychiatrist in the northern Russian town of Murmansk asked Arap whether she was the one who had written "Madhouse," an article in a local paper that had exposed unorthodox and dismal conditions in psychiatric wards.
As she slowly responded "yes," Arap recalled, it dawned on her why a security vehicle was parked outside. A policeman came in as two others waited in the hallway. The psychiatrist refused to sign the document.
"Because you are the author who wrote about the closed psychiatric system, which is forbidden, we are sending you to a psychiatric institution," the psychiatrist said, according to Arap.
What followed that July day was a horrific six-week stay in psychiatric wards, said Arap, who recounted her story in an interview last week in Washington.
Activists say Arap was only one of countless Russian citizens who have been wrongly spirited into the hallways of mental facilities. The tactics echo those used during Soviet times, when a whole class of professionals, doctors, judges, and low-level officials cooperated with government officials to silence critics.
Some government critics have called the phenomenon "police psychiatry."
These days, such tactics are used to muzzle political opponents, incapacitate rivals, or simply remove tenants from apartments where they are not wanted, said Marina Litvinovich, who accompanied Arap to Washington and who serves as a political adviser to the civic organization run by chess champion Gary Kasparov.
Arap said that, in her case, police dragged her out of the medical office and forced her into an ambulance, which took her to the Murmansk psychiatric clinic. She said they beat her in the waiting area, injuring her spine. Medical personnel ripped her clothes off and tied her to a bed, she said.
Officials at the clinic have denied allegations of abuse. "We are representatives of a state medical institution; they are libeling Russia," said Yevgeny Zenin, the hospital's chief doctor, according to Reuters.
Today, Arap, 49, still walks slowly, and there is swelling around her ankles.
"They started injecting me with some substance. I was petrified and I started having double vision. I lost consciousness and all sense of time. I would drift in and out of consciousness," recalled Arap.
Her skin taut over hollow cheeks, Arap said she still feels the after-effects of the experience.
While she was being held, regional representatives of Kasparov's group, the United Civil Front, and Arap's husband wrote letters demanding that the hospital stop administering the substance.
Kasparov and other rights defenders raised their voices in protest as well, and Arap was transferred to a facility in Apatity, about 180 miles away.
All in all, Arap spent 45 days in confinement; she said the conditions were humiliating. At one point, she said, she went on a five-day hunger strike to protest. She lost 22 pounds from her already-skeletal frame.
An independent commission of psychiatrists and experts was set up to look at the case at the request of human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin. A court eventually ruled that Arap did not need to be in a psychiatric clinic. She was released Aug. 28.
While she was held, Arap said, she spoke to dozens who were perfectly healthy but found themselves in the same situation: forcibly hospitalized for political reasons, or because of some competitive business venture that wanted them out of the picture.
Litvinovich said it's much easier to send people to a psychiatric hospital than to have them murdered. "Sure, you can get someone killed. But it is expensive and dangerous," she said. "If you have them committed, it is cheaper and simpler; you just pay off the cops, doctors, the courts."