Polish courts use Soviet-era punitive psychiatry even for petty thefts

Polish courts use Soviet-era punitive psychiatry even for petty thefts

MALGOSIA KRAKOWSKA

The practice of mentally abusing and discrediting people accused of various wrongdoings, has come under fire as the case of a 62-year-old resident recently became national discourse.

The characteristic red-brick building, a 19-century era complex in Rybnik, is one of the oldest mental health institutions in Poland. The state hospital, located in the mining region in the south of the country, has not received as much media attention as it does now. Stanislaw Bielski’s recent release from the hospital hit the news headlines across the country.

Belski, a 62-two-year-old resident of Rybnik, spent eight years there, surrounded by psychiatrists and other mentally ill patients.

The Rybnik District Court ruled that the man was suffering from ”paranoid schizophrenia”. The jury’s diagnosis was based on a petty crime — stealing eight boxes of coffee.

Admitting theft, Belski felt he had lost both his identity and dignity.

He was also forced to undergo a controversial electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and received strong medications that caused him to drool. Over the course of eight years, psychiatrists at the hospital subjected him to similar treatments and came to the same conclusion — that Belski’s ‘schizophrenia’ required more treatment.

“My hands were shaking, I got drowsy. I was becoming a mentally retarded individual. This had to stop”, he recalls in a documentary aired by a commercial broadcaster TVN24. 

Poland’s Patient Ombudsman was the first institution to intervene in Belski’s case.

“The local ombudsman expressed doubts about Belski’s stay at the facility”, Bartlomiej Chmielowiec, a Patient Ombudsman tells TRT World.

Belski’s lawyers have challenged the pre detention order in the Court of Appeals in Krakow, which overturned the detention order saying it was unjustified. The Court of Appeals has ordered PLN 2 MLN (approximately EURO 500 000) in damages to be paid out to Belski.

Abuse in pre-trial detention

The protection for the rights for persons suffering from mental disorders, and placed as involuntary patients, is in the hands of the Patient Ombudsman. Not every patient under this detention, however, receives protection against potential abuse. According to the 2006 Health Ministry Regulation, patient ombudsmans in Poland are obliged to act proactively towards involuntary patients sentenced to stay at a mental health facility.

Lawyers and a patient ombudsman further underscore the essential role that a judge plays in situations when defendants suffer from mental disorders. When a mentally ill patient is suspected of committing a crime, a court- upon the request of the prosecutor- may apply preventive measures by sending him to a mental institution where he remains confined to a closed psychiatric ward. 

According to the Polish law and the new Code of Criminal Procedure of 1997, detention for more than 48 hours may take place only on the basis of a court order.

This practice of pre-trial detention, so widely used by the Polish courts, has come under scrutiny from human rights organisations.

Daria Hofman from the Warsaw-based, NGO Court Watch, told TRT World that despite low crime rates, the number of pretrial detentions has risen in Poland.

 “This remains a systemic problem for the judiciary”, she said.

The survey conducted by the Court Watch Polska shows that these are not individual cases.

According to research obtained on a random sample of 310 cases of this preventive measure, show that some of the irregularities are widely duplicated by Polish courts.

When the media started to ratchet up the pressure on courts and mental hospitals, more cases of abuse were revealed.

Recently, the case of Jan Kossakowski, who has spent 19 years in a soul asylum after the local judge decided to place him in a detention facility in a mental hospital because he suffered from alcohol addiction, came to the fore. So did the case of Krystian Broll, who was placed in the mental facility for 8 years for allegedly threatening a local politician. Broll died in the facility in 2017 without getting justice.

A Patient Ombudsman, Bartłomiej Chmielowiec, talked about the case of an eighty-year old man, whom he called Mr Józef. He said that in 2019 a local court sent him to a psychiatric ward for “no reason,” where his health deteriorated rapidly. Only after the ombudsman’s intervention, the man was released and sent back home.

Judges themselves admit that they do not examine whether the medical records provided by psychiatrists are legitimate or accurate. A 2019 TV documentary aired by the Polish private broadcaster TVN24, shows one of the judges saying that making final decisions about a suspect’s detention on the basis of his medical records can be challenging.

”We do not examine the legality of these opinions”, a judge from Gliwice, southern Poland, admitted.

Human rights organisations meanwhile say that punitive psychiatry is a post-Soviet legacy and closely linked to human rights deterioration.

According to the National Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology, approximately eight million Poles suffer from a mental condition. Mental illness is still considered a taboo and people only talk about it behind closed doors. It is a label used to stigmatise the person, preventing the society from sympathising with them.

The practice of sending people to psychiatric hospitals makes such stigmas worse. It’s not only prevalent in Poland but also in countries like Ukraine. In 2012, Crimean courts sent at least 30 people to psychiatric hospitals for political reasons.

The detentions sparked international outrage, with Human Rights Watch calling it “a shameful attempt to use psychiatry to silence” dissidents and political activists.

Source: TRT World

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