Domestic abuse: Why Russia believes the first time is not a crime

By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Moscow

media caption"One night he started to strangle me"

Marina recounts her story in a quiet, calm voice but the details are horrific. She says her husband beat her almost every day for more than a year.

Rolling down a sock, she reveals a long scar on her heel where a metal plate was inserted. Both her feet were smashed, as well as her ribs, when she was pushed through the window of their second-floor flat.

More than 600 Russian women are killed in their homes every month, according to estimates drawn from wider police statistics. Now some fear the situation could get worse.

Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, has approved an amendment that removes domestic abuse from the criminal code.

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Marina survived the two-storey fall and spent three months in a wheelchair. Even then the abuse didn't stop.

"After he beat me in my wheelchair I went to the police," she recalls, now in a shelter for vulnerable women on the outskirts of Moscow.

"My face was puffed up and my lip was split. But even then they didn't detain him. I was in the police station in tears saying I couldn't go home because he'd beat me if he knew where I'd been," Marina says.

"But the police said 'this isn't a hotel, we can't keep you here', and that was it."

image captionThose who run Marina's refuge believe abuse victims need more legal protection, not less

If President Vladimir Putin signs off the change in the law as expected, it will mean that first-time offenders who beat a family member, but not badly enough to put them in hospital, will not face a prison sentence.

The maximum penalty will be a fine or up to a fortnight in police custody.

The amendment sailed through parliament amid talk of protecting the family from interference.

"For us, it is extremely important to protect the family as an institution," Olga Batalina, one of the authors of the amendment explained beneath the vast chandeliers on the sweeping staircase into parliament.

image captionOlga Batalina's amendment is part of a broader backlash against Western values

Her proposal undoes a change made only last July when beating relatives was first defined as a criminal offence.

Welcomed by women's rights activists, the move caused uproar among Russia's increasingly conservative political class.

Deputies condemned it as "anti-family", arguing that a stranger could slap a child and get a fine, while a parent who did the same risked a prison sentence.

Reversing that decision is part of a broader backlash in Russia against what are seen as alien, Western values.

"We are talking about conflict in families. You should not point at this problem from the liberal point of view," argues ultra-conservative deputy Vitaly Milonov.

"That's like having three in a bed. You are sleeping with your wife - and a human rights organisation."

But Marina and those who run the refuge where she's staying believe abuse victims need stronger legal protection, not less of it.

There are currently five families squeezed into the house in the grounds of an Orthodox monastery.

image captionAlyona Sadikova, who heads the shelter on the outskirts of Moscow, is appalled by the decision to reverse the law

The place is noisy with the squeals of children playing; it is pleasantly chaotic, cosy and secure. Funded through charity, the women get shelter and counselling.

They're also offered advice on pressing criminal charges against their abuser, a difficult process even before the law was changed.

"Only one woman in our experience managed to get her case to court," the shelter's director, Alyona Sadikova, recalls. Even then, the offender was given an amnesty and released from prison after a month.

"Now the maximum punishment for beating will be a fine. And if the woman goes home, her husband can take his revenge," Ms Sadikova warns.

The legal change also returns responsibility for bringing a prosecution and collecting evidence to the victim; the police will not automatically open a case.

"For a person who is in deep crisis, that's just unreal," the shelter director argues.

'Freedom to beat'

A proposal for a specific law addressing domestic violence was sent to parliament well over a year ago. It includes restraining orders, prevention and special training for police. But the draft has made no progress; instead, deputies have lessened the penalties for abusers.

"It's like they've been given freedom to beat: as if it's not serious, just a slap or a shove. But it can lead to very serious consequences," warns Irina Matvienko.

She's in charge of a hotline at the Anna crisis centre, which received some 5,000 calls last year from women seeking help.

image captionMarina's daughter is also living in the shelter

"Domestic violence is not about a normal family fight. We are talking about systematic behaviour. So allowing impunity is especially dangerous, because the woman is one-on-one with her abuser," she argues.

Marina is now safe and gradually beginning to rebuild her life. She has a job in the monastery bakery and is saving up to move into a flat with her 10-year-old daughter.

But she didn't have chance to grab her youngest child when she fled barefoot from her home in panic. Now she's battling her husband for custody.

"How can they let her stay with him, after everything he's done," Marina struggles to understand.

But despite the scars on her body, her husband has never been successfully prosecuted. The worry is that even fewer offenders will be held to account now, and intervening before their abuse becomes dangerous could be even harder.

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