Crime and punishment: The Khachaturyan case

Mari Davtyan, a Russian lawyer providing legal services for the victims of domestic violence, talks to Maria Cernat about the three sisters who killed their father to escape a life of torture and abuse

A very unsettling event took place in Russia. A year ago, three sisters, Kristina, 19, Angelina, 18, and Maria, 17, brutally murdered their abusive father. Now the prosecution is trying to sentence them to 20 years in prison. Russian society is extremely polarized over this case. Are the sisters cold-blooded murderers or are they victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse? The information that has surfaced in the press suggests that only the younger sister escaped rape, and that the father, Mikhail Khachaturyan, was an extremely abusive parent that tortured the girls for years. Yet two of his nephews came to his defense saying that, on the contrary, he was a loving father that spoiled the girls, offered them gifts and that he was a churchgoing man who had a lot of religious items in his house, and was regarded as an authority within the Armenian diaspora. Neighbors complained about Mikhail using firearms to threaten them and they also suspected he had connections to the world of crime. It is a very complicated case that will send a very powerful message to Russian society. This is why I decided to discuss it with Mari Davtyan, a Russian lawyer who worked with victims of domestic violence for 10 years providing legal services to them. Five years ago, she founded an NGO that fights for the rights of victims of domestic violence. I asked Mari Davtyan to tell us more about herself and her professional activity and to give us more information on this case but also on issues like women’s rights in Russia:

Mari Davtyan: I am a lawyer, I worked in the criminal justice system for 10 years. I collaborated with a lot of NGOs defending women’s rights. Five years ago we started this project that aims to provide legal services for victims of domestic violence and I’m the head of this center that specializes in providing legal aid.

Maria Cernat: I wanted to talk to you because this event will be presented as something that only happens in Russia, because Russia has a conservative government, and because in Russia you have initiatives like the one from Yelena Mizulina that pushed a law in 2017 that decriminalizes home battery.

Mari Davtyan: The problem of domestic violence is a phenomenon that affects the entire world. It is a human rights issue. But what is specific to Russia is that we don’t have special legislation against domestic violence. We are among the last countries that does not have special laws concerning domestic violence. Maybe this happened because we do have a conservative government, not only Yelena Mizulina; the whole state apparatus. We don’t have specific laws to deal with domestic violence. In other countries, they also have problems with domestic violence, but they have special legislation to protect victims and punish abusers. 

But don’t you have feminist movements to push for this type of legislation?

We do have feminist movements but they are not strong enough to push for this type of legislation. But we are trying to do our best. I am the co-author of a first draft of legislation against domestic violence. My colleagues and I wrote special legislation and tried to push it but it is very hard to make politicians adopt it. I think nowadays the State Duma is not ready to look at this law, to read it and consider it.

But don’t you have any progressive politicians that are more open to the debate?

Yes, but very few of them are. For example, we have Oxana Pushkina who is a member of the State Duma and she tried to help us to adopt the law. But she is only one of 450 members in the State Duma. 

The case of the Khachaturyan sisters polarized Russian society. There are those who say that this was a very abusive father that tortured the girls for years, but there are also people who claim that, on the contrary, he was a good man, a churchgoing man who had a lot of Orthodox icons in his house. What do you think about this type of polarization?

Well, this is a very hard question because we talked about the Russian conservative government, but Russian society is also conservative. Over the last few years our government showed that we are the last country in the Council of Europe in terms of the legislation concerning domestic violence. And when the government shows that traditional values are the right way to go, the society is the result of what the government is saying and this is why society tries to obey and we have so many conservative and patriarchal people. Patriarchy is most prevalent in our country. This is the problem, that the government is saying that look, we are not a liberal country with liberal values, we are a traditional country with traditional values. Traditional values are patriarchal values that amount to power, power and control. We can see power and control in society but also in the family. 

There are those who accuse the sisters of being immoral, promiscuous. Do you think that this is a case where the girls do not fit the traditional model of the woman who just takes it and never reacts?

Ah, not exactly. I think that the problem is that these girls don’t “look like victims.” The accusers say: Look at them, they do not look like victims! They are not so poor, they are not crying every day, every time. Look at their pictures, they are like… smiling! So they are not victims. But that’s not true. We know that any woman can be a victim. And profiles and Instagram photos are not evidence of not being a victim. We believe in some images of domestic violence. We believe that victims are always crying, for example. That victims can never be aggressive. This is why many people say, look at them, they were not victims. This is really a trap. This is one problem. The other one is that in a country where domestic violence is the norm, when they say that they suffered domestic violence many people don’t think that that was really a problem. He just beat you! Why did you kill him? 

I saw articles that presented photos from their social media profiles, and this is yet another way social media can hurt you. You are encouraged to project an image of happiness and success, to hide all the pain and sorrow that you may be suffering, and then, people say: Look, this is how you presented yourself!

Yes, and besides that many men in Russia really think that domestic violence is something normal. So, the girls suffered physical but also sexual violence, and they didn’t have any choice. Since in Russia we don’t have any kind of mechanism to help them they were trapped. 

From what we are being presented, Russia, like many other countries, has a big problem with gay people. We are presented this image because this is the geopolitical context and we are encouraged to demonize everything that happens in your country. But, nevertheless, let’s say we have this case: We have a gay father and he rapes his boys and the boys kill him. Do you think the conservatives would defend the gay father?

This is a very hard question. I really don’t know the answer. I want to believe that Russian society would help the boys. But I really don’t know. Because it is very hard in Russia to be gay. But still, I think, although it is hard to say, that the conservative part of society would say that they shouldn’t do it and that they are criminals. 

I’m asking that because usually the lives of women tend to be devalued while the lives of men tend to be considered….

Yes, more important. It is hard to say. I think men in Russian society cannot understand women suffering domestic violence, but maybe they could understand men suffering from domestic violence or boys living with the effects of domestic violence. 

Do you think that it would be possible to see a positive outcome from this tragic event? That although it took the sorrow and pain of these three sisters, maybe domestic violence will become and important issue since it is now a major debate theme on Russian TV? Could this case serve as a wake-up call?

Well, this is not the first famous case of domestic violence. Two years ago, a very aggressive husband cut off the head of a Russian woman. There was a huge debate on domestic violence and what to do in situations like that. The representatives of government talked about it, but still, we don’t have the law against domestic violence. I’m afraid the same thing will happen now. They will talk about it, but no law will be adopted.

But do you think that if the sentence is to be this harsh – 20 years in prison for killing your rapist, basically – this would send a powerful signal to Russian society that would further normalize domestic violence and abuse against women?

Yes, and it would be a very strong and a very sad signal in terms of domestic violence. I hope in this case we can protect the girls and I really want to believe that the judges will come to understand, and I also want to believe that judges are more progressive than the conservative part of our society. Because there will be no chance for a normal life for Russian women. On one hand you have domestic violence, on the other if you try to defend yourself you will go to prison. And this will be a horrible threat for Russian women. I hope they will understand this. But I really don’t know what the future holds.

The lawyer of the three sisters recommended you because you fought for the rights of domestic violence victims for so long. Do you want to add something to this conversation?

I’m very happy that the international media talks about the problem of domestic violence in Russia. This is very important for us because we have been talking about this problem for years. We talked all over the country, we had important discussions about it but we still don’t have any mechanism to protect victims. I have been working for ten years. We do need this mechanism, we need a special law. We have now the situation where women are killed by family, and where women kill in the family and it is the norm. And this is horrible. Women in Russian society are most likely to be killed by family members. 

This is also the case in Romania where every three days a woman is killed and in 90% of the cases it is someone close to her: her boyfriend, her husband, her father. Patriarchy is not specific to Russia.

Yes, but when you have some state protection it is much easier to leave the abuser. In Russia unfortunately you don’t have anyone who can help you except a few NGOs. 

But still, tell me what was your biggest achievement in the field of protecting victims of domestic violence?

Well, several years ago, a new law on social aid was adopted. Domestic violence is considered a case where social aid should be provided by the state. That means psychological counseling, legal assistance, shelter. The problem is that we don’t have shelters all over the country and there are some regions that don’t have this type of service. It is important that domestic violence starts to appear in the text of the law, even if it is only in a very short section of the law.

Photo: Mari Davtyan (source: Mari Davtyan)

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