Guest Opinion: Decriminalizing domestic violence

​Chicago Tribune
Jan. 28
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Imagine a country where domestic violence is a crime only if, for example, a wrist is broken, a kidney is lacerated or a cuff to the head causes a concussion.

Hard to imagine, right?

Well, think of the land of Vlad, and you’ve hit pay dirt.

Russia is poised to enact a law that would decriminalize domestic violence. So, a black eye, a welt on the face and the trauma that comes with being struck by a loved one would yield a small fine, a short stay in a lockup, or a few weekends of roadside garbage pickup.

Existing law makes battery of a family member a crime that can mean up to two years in jail. Under this legislation, if it’s a first offense, civil — not criminal — law would apply, provided that the abuse doesn’t cause serious bodily harm. Abusers who meet conditions of the law would get what amounts to a slap on the wrist — a fine of up to $500, community service or, at the most, up to 15 days in jail.

Russia’s parliament, the Duma, overwhelmingly passed the legislation Friday. It now comes up for a vote in the country’s upper legislative chamber, the Federation Council, which routinely rubber stamps what the Duma passes. It then goes to President Vladimir Putin’s desk for his signature.

Proponents of the bill say government should keep its nose out of family life. They also say it’s too harsh to make domestic violence a crime for first-time offenders, if the act of violence is “committed in an emotional conflict, without malice, without grave consequences,” Olga Batalina, a co-author of the bill, told The Associated Press. “Battery doesn’t even involve grave bodily harm. We’re only talking about bruises, scratches, which is bad, too, of course.”

Oy! Now that’s some Potemkin logic! Striking your spouse or slapping your kid for the first time isn’t a crime, but doing it again is. Is there a Russian word for “mulligan”? Creating minimal consequences for a first offense sets the table for subsequent offenses and disregards the deep psychological harm caused by superficial injuries such as bruises and scratches administered by a loved one.

The push for this law reflects Russian society’s long-standing ambivalence to domestic violence. Russian police often shy away from responding to domestic violence calls, preferring instead to leave disputes to families to work out. According to a survey conducted by state-run pollster VTsIOM, nearly 1 out of every 5 Russians says it can be acceptable to strike a wife, husband or child “in certain circumstances.” The Russian Orthodox Church has weighed in, issuing a statement last year that characterized corporal punishment as an “essential right given to parents by God.”

Statistics bear out the damage domestic violence does to Russian society. The Russian Interior Ministry estimates that 14,000 women die annually from injuries inflicted by their husbands or partners — nearly 40 per day. Human Rights Watch says 40 percent of all violent crimes in Russia are committed within the family.

Opponents of the law say the measure essentially excuses violent behavior in households. “It is clear that lawmakers recognized violence as a norm of family life,” Svetlana Aivazova, a Russian gender studies expert, told The New York Times. “This shows that Duma deputies are not simply conservative or traditional, it shows that they are archaic.”

The measure probably will soon reach Putin. Will he be modern or medieval? The right thing to do, Comrade Putin, is obvious — say “nyet” and veto the bill.