Is Russia “Decriminalising Domestic Violence?”
The Russian bill providing for what has been called the ‘decriminalisation of domestic violence‘ passed a second reading in the Russian State Duma and was approved by the Federation Council on 1 February without much opposition from the senators. It is official now: assault against any family members not resulting in any serious injury is relegated to the status of petty offence punishable under the Administrative Code with a fine (between £ 60-400) or other administrative punishments (10-15 days of jail or community labour).
Russian law divides offences in two types based on the concept of ‘danger to society’: administrative (less serious) and criminal. In 2016, some assault offences were relegated to administrative. There was a general initiative by the Supreme Court to ‘humanise’ Russian criminal law by reducing the punishment for assaults not resulting in serious injuries. In the judges’ opinion, case law and sentencing practice suggested that those punishments did not result in imprisonment anyway.
Assault is the crime by which domestic violence is prosecuted. A group of human rights lawyers and activists, led by Marina Davtyan, campaigned for assault within the family to remain a criminal (as opposed to administrative) offence, because of the impact on women’s rights which relegation of domestic violence to an administrative offence would have. In July they won their campaign, with the result that assault against family members remained a criminal offence with a maximum punishment of up to two years’ imprisonment. This was a hard won campaign against the vocal and furious resistance of Elena Mizulina, the Russian Orthodox Church, conservative parents movements and others related to them. However, on 27 July 2016 Mizulina introduced the bill to relegate domestic violence to an administrative offence. It took six months and a newly composed Duma to make it into law, and it has now been approved by the Federation Council.
A Debate About Rights
Davtyan’s and Mizulina’s positions highlight a disagreement about rights in Russian society. Davtyan is concerned with the levels of domestic violence in Russia. Despite the lack of availability of any reliable statistics, everyone agrees it is rather high. Moreover, even prior to the new law, women did not have any real mechanisms to protect themselves: they could complain under existing articles of the Criminal Code (art. 111-116), which prohibited assault, but none of them explicitly punished domestic violence or mentioned kinship as an aggravating circumstance. Therefore, women felt ultimately unprotected.
Mizulina, on the other hand, has not been interested in women, but in children and protecting the family from the state’s intervention. She wants to protect ‘traditional values’. Her major concern has been that this law would prosecute parents for a ‘spank’ and so interfere with their right to ‘discipline’ their children. On Mizulina’s view, the state is too ready and too often intervenes into the private lives of the family by telling parents what to do with their children, undermining their authority. In short, she has been protecting the right to family life and non-interference from the state.
Therefore, in fact, both sides of this debate put their argument in human rights terms, but with a different agenda and without an attempt to balance the various rights they cite.
There are two ways of looking at these amendments. From the point of view of the overall policy, the state has failed to protect women against domestic abuse and sent an uncomfortable message that violence within the family is no more serious than on the streets or between strangers. This is contrary to many commitments Russia made by joining international treaties (especially CEDAW), further denying human rights protection to women and other groups. At the same time, administrative prosecution of assault which does not result in serious injury makes it much easier to prosecute offenders where there is willingness to do so on the part of the police and the victim. There is no need for the police to worry about statistics and unfinished cases, as administrative prosecution allows something like summary justice: a domestic abuser can be removed and quickly punished upon anyone’s complaint (even, for example, a neighbour’s). However, this will work only in cases where the police are willing to deal with family violence, a willingness which up until now has been inconsistent. In conclusion, these amendments bring prosecution of domestic violence back to the Soviet approach, when police used administrative charges to give women a break, but abusers were too quickly back home after a fifteen-day administrative arrest.