Moscow, Russia – Dozens of Russians clenching flowers gathered in Moscow on Saturday in support of three sisters on trial for killing their abusive father in a case that has reignited a debate over domestic violence in Russia.
On the evening of July 28 last year, Krestina, Angelina, and Maria Khachaturyan approached their sleeping father and attacked him with a knife, a hammer and pepper spray. They say they acted in self-defence after suffering years of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of their 57-year-old father.
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But prosecutors are calling for the girls, now aged 18, 19 and 20, to be convicted of premeditated murder, an offence that carries a maximum of 20 years behind bars.
Supporters of the Khachaturyan sisters have a different take, summed up in their online appeal for Muscovites to take to the streets en masse on August 3.
“These are women self-defenders who are under investigation for not allowing themselves to be killed and raped,” it said.
Throughout the day on Saturday, dozens of the sisters’ supporters laid flowers in front of the general prosecutor’s office as part of an ongoing campaign backing the Khachaturyan sisters.
“The case is not being investigated properly,” Maria Siprikova, one of the participants at the gathering, told Al Jazeera as the police watched on.
“This is a case of self-defence against a violent father, not murder. We want the authorities to introduce laws against domestic violence and free the sisters,” she added.
Their campaign comes at a critical moment in Russia as several high-profile stories have brought the issue of domestic violence to the public’s attention. Police have been criticised for failing to act in the case of Margarita Gracheva, whose husband cut off her hands in 2017, even though she had complained to the police about the abuse.
A sweeping report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in October last year found the police systematically failed to act on credible reports of abuse and instead “often treat victims of domestic violence with open hostility and refuse to register or investigate their complaints of domestic violence”.
The Khachaturyan girl’s lawyer, Alexei Parshin, has said that neighbours reported the father to police several times, but criminal proceedings were not initiated against him.
Activists say President Vladimir Putin‘s decision to decriminalise domestic violence in 2017 has made it harder for victims to seek protection from their abusers. They also point to a chronic lack of shelters for women and the fact that protection orders don’t exist in the Russian legal system.
“The message the Russian authorities are sending to the victims is that they are alone, that neither the police nor the courts will help them,” Yulia Gorbunova of HRW told Al Jazeera.
Although cases of domestic violence are common in Russia – impacting at least 20 percent of Russian women, according to government statistics – the outpouring of support for the Khachaturyan sisters has been unprecedented. Saturday’s gathering was just one of a series of rallies and events in recent months.
Next weekend’s rally is expected to draw much larger crowds.
About 320,000 supporters have added their names to a petition demanding the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, personally take charge of the case, throw out the indictment against the sisters, and investigate their father posthumously.
“This campaign is much bigger than just the Khachaturyan case,” said Alena Popova, a lawyer and prominent women’s rights advocate, who organised the petition.
“The police, judges and prosecutors need to think about who they want to protect: the abusive father or Russians who have a constitutional right to defend themselves.”
The Kremlin has yet to comment publicly on the case but Moscow city authorities have so far blocked multiple requests from activists to hold official rallies, including next weekend’s.
A ruling earlier this month by the European Court of Human Rights has encouraged advocates holding out for change. Judges in Strasbourg awarded Valeriya Volodina 20,000 euros ($22,300) because Russian police failed to intervene after a former partner stalked, kidnapped and assaulted her, despite her appeals for police intervention.
The court said the incident, far from being a one-off, represented “but one single, stark example of a much more systemic problem”. It added the lack of legislation against domestic violence “deters women from seeking recourse and reinforces police unwillingness, or even refusal, to deal seriously with the problem, as they do not consider it a crime”.
Earlier this week, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament Valentina Matvienenko unexpectedly joined the chorus calling for change, by asking legislators to explore ways of strengthening protections for victims of domestic violence.
Gorbunova said she hopes the European court ruling will set a precedent and she welcomed Matvienenko’s call for new protections.
However, she told Al Jazeera, “While discussions are ongoing, horrific things are happening. Hopefully, this case will be a signal for the authorities to act.”