(Updates with death estimate in eighth paragraph.)
Oct. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Ekaterina Vinogorova almost wishes her ex-husband had done more than just break her nose and a few ribs when they lived together.
Under the Russian criminal code, those injuries weren’t severe enough to warrant the police prosecuting him for assault. She had to resort to a lawsuit, taking him to court on a claim of domestic beating. A judge found him guilty in 2011 and fined him 25,000 rubles (about $800), short of the maximum 40,000.
“He walks free, unpunished,” said Vinogorova, a 42-year- old mother of three who works as a beautician in Moscow and is fighting another court battle with her ex-spouse, a special forces veteran, over child visitation rights. “It’s really frightening,” she said.
There are few legal safeguards in Russia for women like Vinogorova, and legislation that would provide some by recognizing domestic violence as a crime has been stalled for 17 years. Activists who recently stepped up lobbying efforts for the measure face resistance from the country’s Orthodox Church and allies of President Vladimir Putin who promote what they view as traditional Russian family values.
“Russia is behind when it comes to legal protection for women -- it doesn’t have the basic parameters that women need to be protected from domestic abuse,” Gauri van Gulik, a Berlin- based women’s rights campaigner at Human Rights Watch, said in a telephone interview. “The economic costs of domestic violence are incredibly high, so it’s not just important for women, it’s important for the development of the country itself.”
Russia is the only member of the Group of Eight nations where family violence or domestic sexual abuse isn’t recognized as a separate crime. Former Soviet states including Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine have criminalized it. Even Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive or appear in public unveiled, made it a crime two months ago, punishable by as long as a year in prison and as much as a 50,000-riyal ($13,300) fine.
Women in Russia need such a law more than most, said Marina Pisklakova-Parker, head of the Moscow-based Anna Center for victims of domestic abuse. A popular proverb in the country of 142 million -- “He beats her means he loves her” -- underscores how widespread the conviction is that physical violence isn’t necessarily anything to worry about in a marriage, and certainly shouldn’t be the state’s business.
Violence against women is endemic, with as many as 14,000 every year -- more than one an hour -- dying at the hands of husbands or other relatives, according to 2008 estimates cited by the Health Ministry and Federal Statistics Service in a report submitted to the United Nations in May. Pisklakova-Parker put the estimate at about 10,000 women and lamented a lack of official data on the issue.
Government statistics show almost a quarter of women report being sexually or physically abused at home.
Among women who suffered physical violence in 2010, 87 percent didn’t seek medical or legal help, with almost a quarter saying it wouldn’t do any good, according to a United Nations- Federal Statistics Service study published in May.
Today, people who file domestic abuse lawsuits have to represent themselves in court or pay for their own lawyer, while defendants are eligible for state-appointed attorneys at no cost. Plaintiffs are also responsible for producing evidence and questioning the accused, with no assistance from a public prosecutor or law enforcement agencies.
The domestic violence bill would change all that. Under the proposals, any case of domestic abuse would be taken up by the police and those charged would face trial in a court with a public prosecutor. It would also allow courts and police to issue restraining orders forbidding abusers from having contact with their victims. Detention orders of as long as 15 days and counseling would be required for so-called light offenders -- those who don’t inflict damage requiring more than a 21-day recovery -- and prison terms for those convicted of causing more acute injuries.
“This is a preventative rather than a punitive law,” said Anna Center’s Pisklakova-Parker, who is helping to write the legislation, because “light” offenders would have the chance to go home and change their ways after a brief detention.
The measures in the current draft are still too much for Olga Kostina, a Putin supporter who campaigned for his 2012 re- election and is a member of Russia’s Public Chamber, a civic group that advises the Kremlin. She said it would be unwise for the country to prosecute any but the most horrific domestic abuse because it might lead to the dissolution of marriages.
“Before destroying the family, you should give social services a few chances to help,” Kostina said in a telephone interview. “The most important thing is to try to resolve things amicably” at an early stage, she said.
Protecting marriage is one of the goals of campaigners for policies to preserve what Putin has called the “Russian identity.” They include proposals to increase the tax on divorce as much as 75-fold to $950 as well as existing measures that financially reward couples who have at least three children. Putin in July signed a law banning so-called gay propaganda to minors, aimed at countering a “distorted conception of the equivalence between traditional and non- traditional sexual relationships.”
The 61-year-old Russian leader and his wife of nearly 30 years, Lyudmila, 55, said in June they were divorcing, blaming demands on his time and his high-profile position. Five years ago, the owners of Moskovskiy Korrespondent shut the tabloid after it reported that Putin had divorced his wife and was planning to marry Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, who’s now 30.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment on the Kremlin’s position on the domestic violence bill. The Russian Orthodox Church, to which more than two thirds of the population professes to belong, raised concerns that the proposal is anti-family.
“There should be a serious balance between state interference in family life and resolving family problems with the help of a priest or psychologist through the wisdom of relatives,” Vsevolod Chaplin, a spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, said in a telephone interview. He added that he was aware of “a lot of cases” when wives have lodged complaints and later regretted it.
Some lawmakers from the ruling United Russia party back the legislation, which parliament first considered in 1996 and shelved in 2001. While the bill hasn’t been considered by any committees in the current session, supporters remain cautiously confident.
“It’s hard to say when this will happen. We hope it will make it to the State Duma next year,” said Saliya Muzarbayeva, a United Russia lawmaker on the health committee. “Society in the past wasn’t ready for such a measure and lawmakers weren’t ready either to pass the law.”
For Vinogorova, the law could have made all the difference. If her ex-husband, Igor Vinogorov, had been convicted in a criminal court of domestic violence, he would at least have been forced to have counseling and she would have been able to petition for a restraining order to keep him away from her.
Instead, she said she had to flee twice, taking her two sons and daughter to Moscow’s only public refuge for battered women, the Nadezhda Center, after seven years of physical abuse in front of the children. His threats of intimidation continue, she said. Igor Vinogorov declined to comment.
Located on the outskirts of the Russian capital, municipally funded Nadezhda, or Hope, has just 35 beds for women and their children in a city of 11.5 million people. One current resident, who identified herself as Svetlana, said she fled there with her 2-year-old to escape her husband’s fists while she waits for their divorce to be finalized.
“He tortured me both physically and psychologically,” Svetlana, 24 said, sitting on a couch. “I put up with him because I wanted my child to have a father. Russian women are kind. We forgive a lot.”
Criminalizing family abuse is desperately needed in Russia because “it will establish under the law what domestic violence is, and people will know what punishment they face,” said Natalya Pazdnikova, Nadezhda Center’s director.
As it is, police, prosecutors and judges are reluctant to punish domestic abuse cases and instead seek to encourage battered wives to reconcile with their husbands, said Ekaterina Vinogorova’s lawyer, Alexei Parshin.
Early this month, a Moscow appeal tribunal ruled in a custody case to allow Vinogorova’s 43-year-old ex-husband to see their 9-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son at their school without her present. She had asked the judges to uphold a 2011 ruling restricting visitation rights to meetings under her supervision because of his history of beating her.
The 9-year-old is terrified of her father, who behaved aggressively at a school meeting, according to an affidavit provided by the school director to the court.
The two former spouses didn’t speak a word to each other at the Oct. 4 hearing at Moscow City Court, which lasted less than an hour. In the brightly-lit courtroom, three judges dressed in black gowns, one male and two female, presided over the proceedings with a Russian flag to the right and the two-headed eagle symbol above them.
Vinogorov said in court that he undergoes a psychological evaluation every six months as a condition of his job as a bank security guard authorized to carry a firearm. His wife said in a court filing that he was clinically diagnosed as a psychopath in 2008.
He accused his ex-wife of vengefully blocking him from access to the children. “Let me take part in their upbringing and establish some relationship with them, and everything will be fine,” he said in court.
Ekaterina Vinogorova said he warned her that “things are only going to get worse” after she left him for good in 2010. She said she notified the police when her parents’ country house burned down later that year, a few days after he allegedly warned her he’d set it on fire if she didn’t return to him. Parshin, her lawyer, confirmed her comments.
She went to the police, she said, but officers didn’t interview him until a year later and nothing came of it. On Sept. 25, someone tried to set her car alight, the day after she took her daughter out of school early to avoid the child’s twice-monthly meeting with her ex-husband, she said.
The investigator with whom she said she filed complaints didn’t respond to requests for comments delivered in person and left telephone calls and text messages unanswered.
“As far as the government goes, I’ve tried knocking on all the doors,” Vinogorova said. “He’ll do anything he wants,” she said of her ex-husband. “The only thing left is to pray that crazy thoughts don’t come into his head.”
--Editors: Torrey Clark, Paul Abelsky