Don't Ban Western Medical Supplies, Russian Patients Plead

Amid controversial scenes of banned Western food being destroyed, Russia now faces criticism over proposed new import restrictions on life-saving medical equipment for the country's most vulnerable.

In a St Petersburg hospital
In a St Petersburg hospital
Maxim Ivanov, Maria Karpenko and Khalil Aminov

MOSCOW â€" Prominent non-profit organizations and charities in Russia have appealed to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on behalf of the country's most medically needy, asking the Russian government to halt a proposed extension of banned foreign drugs and medical equipment from the West, saying that patients are suffering because of the sanctions.

Managers from charities that help sick children and the elderly have signed a letter calling on Medvedev to set up a working group to communicate with those who are affected by existing import restrictions on supplies such as drugs, X-ray machines, defibrillators, crutches and prostheses.

They have asked the Prime Minister to examine the quality of domestically produced medical equipment in comparison with their foreign-produced equivalents. They say restrictions on these products are being introduced too quickly and that supplies produced domestically or within the Eurasian Customs Union, such as dressings and anti-bedsore mattresses, simply don't meet modern standards.

Lives in the balance

"The quality of life of patients after surgery, those in hospices, nursing homes, and all bed-ridden patients depends on the quality of these products," the letter reads.

A survey by the state-run Russian Academy of Economy and State Services found that the primary problems within Russian health care stemmed from a lack of state control over the health sector as well as a shortage of qualified staff. These were followed by issues related to lack of funding. They found that domestically produced ventilators are almost never used and are not suitable in any case for heavy patients or those who require prolonged treatment.

A dialysis center in Murmansk, Russia â€" Photo: Andrey Pronin/ZUMA

Vasily Shtabnitsky, among the members of the Live Now organization that sent the letter to Medvedev, says there are no adequate Russian-produced ventilators. "In Russia, more than 9,700 people need ongoing respiratory support, a third of them children," Shtabnitsky says.

Adopting the government proposals would "inevitably lead to a sharp decline in the quality of medical care," the letter reads. The charity Faith fears that restrictions on public procurement will lead to a shrinking market, making it no longer profitable to supply products to Russia in the future.

Elena Streletskya, general director of Medinform Healthcare Communications, says that the public sector accounts for a large chunk of the supplies listed in the draft resolution and would mean that Western suppliers would have to completely rearrange their organizations. "The procurement ban will hit their profitability," she says.

Dentistry would also be hard hit because 84% of supplies are imported. "Some items can be replaced, but not all, says Pavel Dobrovalsky, president of a a dental services association.

Analysis from the Vademecum Center found that despite Russia's commitment toward import substitution, local production of medical equipment has not yet reached 10% in some sectors. Less than 5% of MRI machines are made locally, for example, and less than 3% of dental equipment is. Not even 1% of optical lenses are produced in Russia.

"In the 1990s, the largest enterprises producing health products in the USSR were privatized, destroyed or their production reduced to a tenth of what it was," says Olga Goncharova, who heads the government's import substitution project. "They were replaced by private companies working in the face of fierce competition with foreign majors, and they have failed to take significant market share.”

The New Life group's Valery Shilo says Russia is unable to produce dialysis machines and that the import substitution policy is "hurting us more than it's helping us."

So it comes as good news to her when Lyudmila Kostkina, deputy chair of the Federation Council Committee, says that proposed sanction extensions haven't been finalized and could be amended "after a full public discussion."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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