Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Russia has no legal mechanism for prosecuting domestic violence

If you are not familiar with domestic violence issues in Russia, this is an excellent introduction. Notice that it is also common for Russian abusive fathers to murder their children--in order to get "revenge" against the mothers. And that custody issues are a nightmare--just as they are nearly everywhere these days.

December 22, 2010
Battery in Private
By Tom Balmforth
Russia Profile

Russia Has No Legal Mechanism for Prosecuting Domestic Abuse

The government considers violence against women in their homes as a strictly private matter, unless the victim sustains medium to severe injuries.

Yekaterina Vinogorova, a 39-year-old mother of three, finally fled her 15-year-long marriage after her husband broke her nose and ribs and covered her in bruises. “He would have these periodic outbursts of jealousy. The last time he beat me up so badly I simply walked out, but he carried on following me. Once he slashed the tires on my car. He was stalking me everywhere,” she said.

For three months Vinogorova and her children were given refuge at Moscow’s shelter for victims of domestic violence until she could move in with her parents, where she remains almost two years on. The paycheck she gets at a Moscow beauty salon is just about enough to support herself and her children, but the situation with her husband is far from resolved.

Vinogorova is prosecuting him in court for the assault. Still, Russia has no legal mechanism for imposing restraining orders even though persuasive research shows that women are most at risk when leaving their partners. She always gives police statements when she is harassed by him, but with little success. Since she left him, he has attacked her father to convince her to return, vandalized her car by tearing out the battery and wires under the hood and finally burnt down their country home. “The trouble is none of this can be proven and the police aren’t interested,” she said, adding that he refuses to hand over her and her children’s passports.

“People like this get some kind of gratification from all this. He’s actually living with another woman now, but apparently this doesn’t make him want to leave us alone. And it all continues unpunished. I just don’t know how this is going to end. When I go out, I make sure I keep checking around me. Who knows what’s on his mind and no one’s there to protect me. The police do nothing.”

Yekaterina’s case is not entirely typical—she was, at least, fortunate enough to make it to a shelter. “They helped me a lot. I lived there with my children for three months. They had lawyers and psychiatrists, and it was all free,” she said. Russia has just 23 of these local government-funded shelters, clearly too few for a largely ignored social issue which claims a staggering 14,000 women’s lives a year, according to government statistics cited by this year’s UN report titled “End the Silence.”

The capital, with its real population way in excess of ten million, has only one shelter, the “Hope Center,” which has 35 beds, said Elena Korsakova, its director. NGO workers consider the 14,000 deaths a year a conservative estimate even though it equates to the number of soldiers the Soviet Union lost in its decade-long abortive campaign in Afghanistan. Put otherwise, one woman is killed by her partner every 40 minutes, meaning that Russian women are three times more likely to be abused within the walls of their own home by their partners than they are even on the streets, a report by ANNA, Russia’s leading domestic violence NGO working trying to curb violence against women, found this year.

What’s more, in Russia domestic violence is as likely within the walls of the elite Rublyovka mansions as it is in the apartments of its bleak single-industry cities. “This problem transcends any social strata or social group,” said Marina Pisklakova-Parker, the director of ANNA. “It doesn’t depend on education, income or other forms of social status. It happens in every type of family. It’s everywhere. But still it is not discussed.”

Suffering in silence

Russian pop diva Valeria brought domestic violence into Russia’s headlines when in 2005 she documented ten years of quietly suffering beatings from her husband, the man who managed her superstar music career. But this was a rare public glimpse into domestic violence, and the anguish of its victims more often goes unheard in a matter that is socially perceived as a private affair. “In society, domestic violence is not considered bad behavior,” said Pisklakova-Parker. “When nobody says you cannot beat your wife, then everybody who does it assumes they have a right to do it. There is only silence. Society says ‘it’s okay, it’s not a crime’.” In his State of the Nation address this year, President Dmitry Medvedev delivered a wide-ranging plan to protect women and children to halt the population crisis because of the forecasted drop in women of child-bearing age, but he made no mention of the violence at home killing 14,000 women a year.

Out of Russia’s three mainstream pollsters, the Public Opinion Fund, VTsIOM, and Levada, only the latter could provide any statistics on domestic violence, and even that poll dated back to 2006. That year, 26 percent of Russians said that domestic violence is “very widespread” in Russia, 45 percent said “quite widespread” and 19 percent said “not widespread,” according to Levada. The rest were “not sure.”

Muddled numbers

Moreover, statistics are unreliable because of the backwardness of the government’s approach to domestic violence. No distinction is drawn between crimes against different genders, meaning that Interior Ministry statistics on domestic violence are inaccurate. There are also a raft of ambiguities in the Interior Ministry data issued to the public. Speaking at an event organized to prevent future domestic violence in 2008, the police said that there were over 200,000 domestic violence crimes committed by people when drunk, but also said that there are over 250,000 people suffering from alcoholism. “Are these alcoholics among the domestic violence offenders, or are these two different categories?” asked this year’s ANNA report that tried to make sense of the data to pinpoint problematic areas.

In post-Soviet Ukraine, NGO workers say that as many as 70 percent of women are victims of domestic violence. But accurate country-comparisons are tricky. What sets Russia apart is the shocking death toll, which stems from deficient government measures to nip cases in the bud before they escalate. “We have only criminal articles, meaning that intervention can be carried out only when the injuries are medium or severe or in the case of murder,” said Pisklakova-Parker. “Because of the nature of domestic violence, by the time women are suffering medium injuries it is too late. The level of danger is already very high.”

“It’s difficult to assess how Russia compares with other countries, but in Russia there are more frequent cases of domestic violence ending in death because there is no state-level system for helping women, said Larissa Ponarina, the deputy director of ANNA.

Alexei Parshin, a lawyer who does pro bono work for the victims, said that one of the main legal challenges is the lack of a legal mechanism to impose restraining orders. “If a lover, civil partner, or husband continues following a woman, there is no legal mechanism to limit his interaction with that woman,” he said. “We have a witness protection program, but this law is not used for crimes of this gravity.” Significantly, there is no specific article in the criminal code against domestic violence, meaning that acts of domestic violence are seen in the same light as simple assault.

Punishments usually amount to little more than fines and do not take into account the relationship between the assailant and the victim (sometimes as straightforward as one of economic dependence), and the psychological trauma thereby caused. “In some situations, criminals are due a jail sentence but we can’t get it because jail sentences aren’t stipulated for fighting. I think sentences need to be made tougher,” said Parshin. “If there was a law on domestic violence, then we could give more serious terms, or at least suitable terms which, in the case of a repeated offense, would be made appropriately serious.”

Pisklakova-Parker agreed. “We don’t have legislation that says ‘no,’ you cannot do it. Even when cases get to court, sentences are very light. The first time a person gets sentenced, it counts in their favor because they are seen as a responsible person.” Domestic violence falls awkwardly between cracks in legislation: it should qualify as “torment” under Article 117 of the Russian Criminal Code because of its repeated and systematic nature, and should therefore be punishable by three years in prison, argues this year’s shadow report by ANNA. But in Russian law, battery inflicted during an argument and arising from personal hostility cannot qualify as “torment.”

Not a crime

Against this backdrop of silence, backward legislation and the statistical vacuum, some contend the problem is evolving. In November The Moscow Times cited “women’s rights advocates” who claimed that more children are being beaten and killed by fathers taking revenge against their mothers. The ANNA report recounted a brutal murder in Tatarstan of a five-year-old boy by his father, who stabbed him to death to “settle a score” with his wife, whom he suspected of infidelity.

Ponarina was reluctant to confirm a possible pattern. “We haven’t had to deal with any of these kinds of cases. There probably are cases like this, but I can’t say for sure that this is a trend. Of course, children are manipulated in order to somehow manipulate women and victims of domestic violence. As for the trend of murder, I just can’t say.”

Vinogorova is currently in court with her husband over rights to see the children. “He’s demanding in court that we allow him to see the children. I explain that I cannot just sit back and allow a person like him to see them. I have to protect my children. They themselves are scared after all this,” she said.

An army of one

Even if women do manage to escape dependence on their partners, pressing charges is a complex process, which lawyers and NGO workers agree favors the defendant. Under Russian law domestic violence cases are not handled by the state, and victims must act as the prosecutors themselves because violence at home is seen as a private affair that the state should not encroach on. “Just imagine for a moment how few women have a legal education and know what to do or even how to write statements. If it’s a trial, it is the woman who has to prosecute. If you then bear in mind that this woman has been living with the defendant for several years or even many years, or that they have children together, it’s clear that it’s going to be really difficult. On top of that, she has to prosecute someone she is scared of,” said Parshin.

After negotiating with the Federation Council in spring of this year, NGO workers thought that they had won a breakthrough when the government appeared to have agreed to draft a better approach to deal with domestic violence. Pisklakova-Parker said the government was still working on it, but there are still major disagreements between the government and the NGO sector. “The Russian government’s position was that we do have legislation that covers domestic violence. They referred to the Criminal Code, where articles cover physical abuse regardless of where it takes place (either at home or in public). They don’t really understand what domestic violence is,” she said.

Perhaps stuttering political will on this subject will gain momentum after president Medvedev launched his campaign to protect women and children to halt the population drop in his State of the Nation address. Parshin said that over his five years of working personally in the field, there were noticeable steps being made in the right direction, and held out optimism. “Ten years ago, no one even admitted there was a problem,” he said. “Now, years later, there is more awareness thanks to the work of rights workers—people like Pisklakova-Parker. They’ve done a lot for this problem to be heard and recognized. Domestic violence is a problem everywhere in the world, but elsewhere they got onto it earlier so more has been done about it. We recognized it only recently and the approach to this question is already changing.”