Thouands protest plan to shut Russian child cancer hospital

ST. PETERSBURG (AFP) - Thousands of Russians expressed outrage Tuesday after the authorities in the northwestern city of Saint Petersburg ordered the closure of a leading hospital renowned for treatment of children with cancer.

The authorities plan to move the patients out of the city's Hospital Number 31, including children with cancer, to other hospitals ahead of the clinic's planned handover to the judicial system for the use of its staff.

More than 150,000 people have signed a petition against the hospital closure, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Jaures Alferov and popular actors Oleg Basilashvili and Chulpan Khamatova.

"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.

In a widely criticised move, the hospital is set to be handed over for the use of the staff of Russia's Supreme Court and the Higher Arbitration Court, which plan to move their offices from Moscow to the former capital.

In Russia, it is common for government ministries and agencies to have state hospitals that are delegated for their use.

Even the Russian Orthodox Church has weighed in on the situation with an official statement 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.

Reacting to the criticism, the Saint Petersburg deputy governor's press service, cited by the Interfax news agency, announced a plan to create a specialised children's cancer centre in the city in the near future.

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