Russia's decriminalization of domestic violence draws sharp criticism

Lawmakers say the controversial bill closes a loophole in domestic violence legislation passed over the summer, but women's rights advocates fear that it will lead to an increase in violence in the home.

Pavel Golovkin/AP
A woman who was beaten by her husband looks through a window in a shelter for women who suffered from domestic violence outside Moscow, Russia, on Jan. 26, 2017. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday signed a law decriminalizing some forms of domestic violence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday signed a new law that will lower the penalty for first offense domestic violence charges, provided that the victim does not incur serious harm, from a criminal offense to a civil one.

The new law, which was passed nearly unanimously by Russia’s Parliament, has drawn much criticism from women’s rights activists and global human rights groups.

Citing the need to protect parents’ rights to discipline children, proponents said the new mandate will reduce the state’s ability to meddle in family life, while still holding those who inflict serious physical harm criminally liable.

Yet, critics say this is more than a battle for family autonomy, and they caution that it could encourage abuse at home and discourage victims from reporting incidents. According to a 2010 UN report, about 14,000 women die at the hands of husbands or other relatives each year.

“While the Russian government claims this reform will ‘protect family values’, in reality it rides roughshod over women’s rights,” Anna Kirey, the deputy director for campaigns for Russia and Eurasia at Amnesty International, said in a statement Wednesday. “It is a sickening attempt to further trivialize domestic violence, an issue the Russian government has long attempted to downplay.”

The country is one of the few in the world without a specific domestic violence law, and according to The Guardian, all attempts to adopt one in recent years had failed. However, campaigners saw a hope last year, as new legislation granted law enforcement bodies the ability to initiate prosecution of an offender, which many hailed as “a baby step” in the right direction.

But the passage of the law last summer intensified a growing controversy, as many lawmakers and religious leaders worried that the generalized language of the law essentially criminalized parental discipline. As Fred Weir reported for The Christian Science Monitor last month, ahead of parliamentary approval:

The legal changes have been accompanied by ferocious public debate and street protests – which itself reflects a shift in Russian social awareness of an issue that's long been in the shadows. But the outcome does appear to confirm the political ascendancy of social conservatives since the pro-Kremlin United Russia party won a crushing victory in last September's State Duma elections.

On display is the growing influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is pushing a strong traditionalist agenda.

Defenders of the bill also pointed to the uniform level of punishment prescribed in the previous law, saying the move would close a loophole in the law that punishes violent acts committed by family members more harshly than those by strangers.

"The question is not whether it’s OK to hit or not," Olga Batalina, one of the MPs who drafted the law, told The Guardian. "Of course it isn't. The question is how to punish people and what you should punish them for."

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