In a seeming landmark ruling, its first on a domestic violence case in Russia, the European Court of Human Rights found that Russia lacks legislation to combat domestic violence, as well as the absence of protection orders.
For Human Rights Watch, the ruling is an indication of a systemic failure to address this critical problem.
The court’s July 9 ruling extensively cited the global rights group October 2018 report on domestic violence in Russia, exemplifying how the court considers the group’s work to be an authoritative source.
But for Russian authorities, men in the country are more likely to suffer from discrimination in domestic violence cases. Apparently irked, Human Rights Watch said, ‘’it is an outrageous claim that flies in the face of the facts.’’
According to the rights group, ‘’the dubious statement is part of Russia’s official response to questions posed by the European Court of Human Rights relating to four domestic violence cases filed against Russia.
‘’One of the four women who sought redress from the European court is Margarita Gracheva, whose husband chopped off her hands with an ax. As is often the case in Russia, weeks before this happened, a police officer dismissed Gracheva’s complaint about her husband’s routine threats as a private matter.
‘’In their submission, Russia said men are more likely to be discriminated against because there are fewer male victims and because men aren’t expected to seek protection, especially if the perpetrator is female. The authorities also had the audacity to claim the applicants are undermining efforts to address domestic violence.’’
Continuing, the obviously enraged rights group said, ‘’accounts of horrific, and sometimes fatal, domestic violence increasingly make headlines in Russia. But authorities aren’t taking the issue seriously. The government’s submission reluctantly acknowledges domestic violence is a problem but suggests it’s exaggerated.
Apparently not persuaded, the authorities are insisting that there are no reasons to adopt specific domestic violence legislation, implying current laws suffice, and argue introducing more laws may result in excessive government interference in family life.
It appears Russia systematically fails to protect domestic violence victims. There’s no separate law on domestic violence, not even a legal definition of it. There are no protection orders that could offer survivors immediate and longer-term protection.
Shelter spaces are severely limited. In February 2017, amendments decriminalizing first offenses of battery within the family were rammed through the Russian parliament by conservatives claiming this would strengthen families. In reality, they made the situation worse by further weakening protections.
‘’The Russian government needs to be urgently reminded of three simple facts’’, the rights group said, pointing out that domestic violence is neither a family matter nor a traditional value. It endangers lives, causes psychological harm that spans generations and demands a robust legal response.
‘’Secondly, it’s the state’s direct responsibility to protect victims of domestic violence. And finally, domestic violence is universally under reported – even more so in Russia due to social stigma and distrust of police. If anything, the lack of reliable statistics on domestic violence in Russia speaks to the gravity of the problem – not the other way around.’’
However, in its July 9 ruling, the court said that Russian authorities are “reluctant to acknowledge the gravity” of the problem of domestic violence and its “discriminatory effect on women.”
The court ruling means that at least one victim of domestic violence in Russia has seen some justice in her case: the court ordered the authorities to pay the applicant, Valeria Volodina, 20,000 euros for damages she suffered.
It was hoped that the ruling will have further consequences. The court communicated to Russia that it is looking at four other cases concerning domestic violence, which may lead to the court adopting the so-called pilot judgment procedure for these cases.
Under this procedure, the court, when considering similar cases, not only examines if a violation has occurred on the facts of the case before it, but also reaches determinations about a systemic problem and instructs the government to adopt policy and legal changes to prevent similar violations in the future.
‘’Domestic violence in Russia is pervasive, and official studies suggest that it affects at least one out of five women. As is the case with domestic violence statistics worldwide, this number is most likely underreported’’, the rights group said.
HRW’s report detailed obstacles survivors of domestic violence face in reporting abuse and obtaining help, including social stigma and distrust of police. It described common patterns of abuse, including how violence escalates systematically over time. Women described being choked, punched, burned, threatened with weapons, sexually assaulted and raped, and subjected to psychological abuse, among other offenses.
At the same time, Human Rights Watch found that police treat survivors of domestic violence with hostility and often fail to open criminal cases or conduct investigations in cases of domestic violence. Instead, they force victims to seek justice through private prosecution, a process that is both expensive and demanding upon the victim.
Russia lacks a national law against domestic violence and does not recognize domestic violence as a stand-alone offense, which makes it difficult for Russian government agencies to keep comprehensive statistics.
Russia has even decriminalised the first instance of battery among family members – meaning that the first time domestic violence is reported to police, it is treated as a minor transgression with mild penalties, signaling to abusers that the violation is a less serious offense.
Russian law also has no protection orders, which help keep women safe by prohibiting contact between a victim and her abuser. And Russia doesn’t have enough shelters for domestic violence survivors.
After the report was published, Human Rights Watch held meetings with government officials, members of parliament, police officers, and government and nongovernmental groups providing services to victims of domestic violence to share the results of the report and discuss remedies.
‘’We keep an active voice in Russia’s ongoing public discussions about domestic violence through regular media and social media engagement, participating in public events, and engagement with Russian activists.
‘’The lack of adequate legislation to protect women from domestic violence contradicts Russia’s international obligations, and regularly calling on the government to address this endemic problem is a core part of our international advocacy on Russia’’ Human Rights Watch said.