(MENAFN - AFP) Thousands of Russians expressed outrage Tuesday after the authorities in Saint Petersburg announced plans to close the only hospital treating children with cancer and hand it over for exclusive use by senior judges.
Hospital No. 31 is currently a hospital open to ordinary citizens and is the only facility in northwestern Russia treating malignant tumours in children.
But in an arbitrary decision, Russian authorities want to give it over to the exclusive use of judges.
The authorities plan to move the patients, including children with cancer, to other hospitals to allow the centrally located hospital to serve staff at the Supreme Court and Higher Arbitration Court, which are set to relocate to Saint Petersburg.
The final decision will probably be taken in February, the city's chief medical officer, Valery Kolabutin, said Tuesday, cited by the ITAR-TASS news agency.
The situation has provoked an unusual wave of public activisim.
More than 150,000 people have signed a petition against the hospital closure including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Jaures Alferov, rock singer Andrei Makarevich and actress Chulpan Khamatova.
Citizens also plan to hold a protest in a city park on Wednesday evening, with the authorities permitting up to 10,000 people.
"This hospital is the last chance for many children, including my son Kirill... The state barely gives us any help, and in this case it is even doing the opposite of helping," said Oleg Kostin, whose 11-year-old son is a cancer patient at the hospital.
"The reorganisation of the hospital would destroy unique ways of caring for the children," said the head of the hospital's children's department, Margarita Belogurova, cited in a petition that is circulating on the Internet.
The move is especially controversial because the hospital has installed costly specialised equipment, including with help from the charity that persuaded President Vladimir Putin to play "Blueberry Hill" on the piano at a gala in 2010.
The charity, the Federation Fund, gave the hospital equipment and children's gifts worth 4.3 million, its website says.
In Russia, in a throwback to the Soviet system, it is common for government ministries and agencies to have state hospitals that are delegated for their use.
Ordinary people cannot get treatment at these hospitals for free and they are seen as better-than-average.
Unlike most Russian hospitals, Hospital No. 31 is housed in relatively modern buildings erected in the 1970s. In Soviet times it used to serve Communist party officials and making it exclusive to the judicial staff would effectively revive the practice.
"Developing the old Soviet practice of special services and privileges in the 21st century is not so much a political question as a moral one," the city's human rights ombudsman Alexander Shishlov was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
Even the Russian Orthodox Church has weighed in on the situation, urging judges to examine their consciences.
"I imagine that the community of Russian judges... would consider it morally unacceptable to receive medical care if there were even the slightest threat that the way it was organised caused suffering to children sick with cancer," said the head of the Holy Synod's information department, Vladimir Legoida in a statement on the Church's website.
Yet the Kremlin children's ombudsman Pavel Astakhov stressed that "any decision is discussed from the point of view of how beneficial it is to children. What is happening today in Saint Petersburg is confirmation of this," ITAR-TASS reported.
Reacting to the criticism, the Saint Petersburg authorities announced a tentative plan to create a specialised children's cancer hospital in the city, with a final decision to be taken next month.