Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has again caught the world's attention - this time with an apparent move to clean up psychiatric abuses. A Soviet law, announced Monday by the official news agency Tass, makes it a crime to commit mentally healthy people to psychiatric hospitals. It also creates an appeals process for the release of patients.
``It's definitely a hopeful sign,'' says Peter Reddaway, director of the Kennan Institute for Russian Studies in Washington and coauthor of a book on Soviet psychiatric abuse. The law should make it harder in the future for the Soviets to commit dissidents this way, he says.
``I think we have to acknowledge that this is taking place in a general atmosphere of reform,'' adds Joshua Rubenstein, the Northeast regional director of Amnesty International.
According to Cathy Fitzpatrick, research director of the Helsinki Watch human rights group in New York, the Soviets want to rejoin the World Psychiatric Association, from which they withdrew in 1983 when it became apparent they faced expulsion over the psychiatric abuse issue. The new law could be aimed at improving the Soviet image and practice of psychiatry before the association's next world congress, set for 1989.
If the Soviets really want to reform their psychiatric system, human rights observers say, the coming weeks should see, among other things, the naming and prosecution of psychiatrists guilty of deliberate false diagnoses and malpractice, and the allowing of patients to be examined by doctors of their choice.
But a wholesale release of psychiatric prisoners by the Soviets is doubtful, says Mr. Reddaway, ``because that might undermine their argument'' that psychiatry is not a political tool of the Soviet state.
``Unfortunately there are new cases,'' Ms. Fitzpatrick adds. ``The mechanism is [still] there, and it's not entirely dismantled.''
``If [dissidents] had a choice of punishment, they always preferred to go to prison or labor camp,'' says Ludmilla Thorne, a Soviet specialist at New York's Freedom House. One reason: Unlike other prisoners, those held in psychiatric wards received no definite sentence.
Fitzpatrick says about 85 people are held as Soviet psychiatric prisoners, down from some 300 when Mr. Gorbachev came to power nearly three years ago.
Though the law says nothing about political prisoners, it transfers responsibility for ``special'' psychiatric hospitals, in which such people have been held, from the police to the Ministry of Health. In theory, that should be an improvement, says Mr. Rubenstein.
The new statute follows years of international criticism of Soviet psychiatric practices; the death last year of Andrei Snezhnevsky, the architect of the Soviet psychiatric system and of the diagnosis most often used against dissidents; and attacks in the Soviet press.
The Soviet authorities are ``calling attention to [psychiatric abuse] themselves by making this change,'' says Rubenstein. ``They know perfectly well what kind of standards we expect them to follow. ... Now let's see what happens.''