‘I want the law to be on our side’: Little support for victims of domestic violence in Russia

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On the night of January 5, 2018, Sergey Gusyatnikov, a police officer in Russia, stabbed his wife 57 times, covered the body with a blanket, and went to work. The woman’s corpse was found the next morning by her seven-year-old son. “The police arrived and said that my daughter was found without signs of life,” Anna Verba, the mother of the murdered woman, told Euronews. “I didn’t understand what they were talking about, and I started to get hysterical. They literally closed my mouth so that I would not scream.” As many countries are working to combat violence against women and domestic violence, experts say Russia is one of the only major countries that provides little protection to women. “Russia is one of the only major countries that does not have dedicated laws for domestic violence, despite official findings that at least one in five women has experienced physical violence perpetrated by a husband or partner,” Alexandra Patsalides, a lawyer with Equality Now told Euronews. Elena Verba and Sergey Gusyatnikov were married in 2008. Elena’s mother told Euronews that the first “signs” of violence appeared in 2017, when Gusyatnikov publicly insulted Elena, suspecting her of cheating. He first attacked her with a knife in August of that year. After the incident, Elena decided to file a statement with police but was stopped by local police because the trial would have deprived Gusyatnikov of his right to a military pension. She died just a few months after the incident. A court sentenced Gusyatnikov to just 10 years in a maximum-security prison. Having a young child was considered a mitigating factor. “I understand that by sentencing for a longer-term, I won’t return my daughter. But I want the law to be on our side,” Verba said. “The criminal who committed such a crime must understand the inevitability of being punished. Who gave him the right to take the life of another person?” she added. Verba is now raising her daughter’s son. She says that Russia’s law partially decriminalising domestic violence, which was adopted in 2017, is to blame for her daughter’s death. “The police officer probably would not have thought that an attack with a knife is just a showdown at home. And the result would be different,” she said. In 2014, 9,600 women died in Russia and about 12,000 were seriously injured, according to official statistics. Most of these crimes were committed by family members or friends. In 2016, 49,765 women were subjected to domestic violence, according to the Federal State Statistics Service. Experts say that these are only the cases that reached the court, thus representing just 3% of the total number of violations. Russia partially decriminalised domestic violence in 2017. They began punishing first offences with mere fines instead of prison sentences. Afterwards, recorded cases of violence were halved. This is because women stopped reporting crimes since so they became less visible, says Marina Pisklakova-Parker, the chairman on the board of the Anna Crisis Centre. “The data shows that response time has decreased and fines only increase the possibility of a relapse of such crimes,” she said. Russia’s lower house of parliament is now considering new legislation to combat the issue but so far there is no plan to repeal the 2017 law. “The focus of the bill is precisely on prevention,” said State Duma deputy Oksana Pushkina. The co-author of the bill, lawyer Mari Davtyanm said there are no “mechanisms” in Russia that “protect women”. “The most important and difficult thing is the definition of domestic violence: what it is, what is included in this concept and what circle of people protects. Are spouses and children included in it?… We believe that there should be a wide range of people who should be protected by this law,” she said. The legislation would introduce measures such as warrants and court orders to separate aggressors from approaching victims. “The law will weaken normal families” Not everyone supports the legislation. At least 180 pro-family and religious organisations sent a letter to President Vladimir Putin asking him to stop adopting the legislation. Accompanying the letter was a petition with 20,000 signatures. “We already have laws that punish rapists, protect victims, and so on. Why create a new law?” said Alexei Komov who is a member of the board of the World Congress of Families, one of the signatories of the petition. “The danger is that it can be used against normal families to somehow weaken them.” Mari Davtyan says though there are opponents of the bill in Russia’s parliament, she thinks it will pass because people understand the problem has escalated. Indeed one Change.org petition in support of the changes already gathered 900,000 signatures.