3(A). Exposing abuse in 2003


In 2003, the Mental Disability Advocacy Center published a report exposing how human beings were being caged in psychiatric and social care institutions in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia.2 The report led to several European Union and United Nations bodies condemning “cage beds” as inhuman and degrading treatment which were prohibited under international human rights law.

MDAC’s report was met with fierce opposition in the Czech Republic. At the launch event at the Czech Senate, the head of the Czech Psychiatric Association denied that human rights were relevant, and suggested painting cage beds different colours to make them look better.

The report led to some significant results. In July 2004 the Hungarian government banned cage beds,3 followed soon after by Slovenia and Slovakia which banned them in social care institutions.4 TIME magazine named Dr. Jan Pfeiffer, then the Board Chair of MDAC (and now a member of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT)) as a 2004 ‘European Hero’ for his anti-cage bed advocacy. MDAC’s cage bed work was profiled by the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News and the British Medical Journal.5

In the same year, the British Sunday Times newspaper drew on MDAC’s report and went undercover to expose cage beds in a children’s psychiatric hospital.6 This spurred Harry Potter author JK Rowling to write a letter of concern to Czech authorities, throwing the issue into even greater limelight both domestically and internationally.7 MDAC’s cage bed report was cited on JK Rowling’s website, and she subsequently founded a charity – originally the Children’s High Level Group and now Lumos – as a result.

Following this advocacy, Jozef Kubinyi, then Czech Minister of Health, issued a letter to directors of all psychiatric institutions instructing them to stop using metal cage beds.8 For taking this step he was swiftly removed from post by the President.9 Václav Klaus, the President of the Czech Republic, criticised Ms Rowling’s intervention on the basis of “one accidental, non-serious article in the British press”, and “refute[d] the idea that the use of [cage] beds is abusive, or worse, that mentally handicapped children are tyranised in our country.” He went on to say that “[i]t would be likewise possible to criticize the placement of handicapped patients in special rooms or their sedation by increased doses of medicine”,10 perhaps failing to recognise that such practices were also abusive in and of themselves.

The President’s response failed to engage in a discourse about his government’s human rights obligations and reflected a majority opinion within the Czech psychiatric community that coercion – including cage beds – was a tradition, an essential and necessary aspect of the clinical toolkit and that those coming from a human rights perspective were “antipsychiatry”.11

Václav Klaus, former President of the Czech Republic, and Jozef Kubinyi, former Minister of Health Photo: ČTK/Zbyněk Stanislav


2 Mental Disability Advocacy Center, Cage Beds: Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment in Four EU Accession Countries, (Budapest: MDAC, 2003)

3 European Public Health Alliance, Cage beds banned in Hungary, (Belgium: EPHA, 2004), available online at: http://www.epha.org/spip.php?article1361 (last accessed: 15.06.2014).

4 Act No. 576/2004 Col. on Health Care.

5 Graham Thornicroft, ‘Mental Health in Europe’, (British Medical Journal, 330: 613, 2005).

6 Justin Sparks, ‘Ordeal of the caged Czech children’, (UK: The Sunday Times, 13.06.2004), available online at: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1152553/ posts (last accessed: 15.06.2014).

7 Justin Sparks, ‘Rowling rejects caged children excuse’, (UK: The Sunday Times, 25.07.2004), available online at: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/world_ news/article114664.ece (last accessed: 15.06.2014).

8 Amnesty International and the Mental Disability Advocacy Center, Czech Republic: JK Rowling letter prompts end of ‘cage beds’, (UK: Amnesty International, 16.04.2014), available online at: http://www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/czech-republic-jk-rowling-letter-prompts-end-cage-beds (last accessed: 15.06.2014).

9 Nicole Paseka, ‘Group to sue over caged patients’, (Prague: The Prague Post, 26.04.2014), available oneline at: http://www.praguepost.cz/archivescontent/1530- group-to-sue-over-caged-patients.html (last accessed: 15.06.2014).

10 The letter is available on Mr. Klaus’s personal website: Václav Klaus, Letter of the President to Joanne Kathleen Rowling, (Prague: Václav Klaus, 28.07.2004), available online at: http://www.klaus.cz/clanky/2367 (last accessed: 15.06.2014).

11 See, for example: Jiři Švarc, ‘Omezující prostředky v psychiatrii’, (Psychiat. Pr Praxi, 9(5): 243-245, 2008) at p. 243.

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