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Several Russian journalists say a federal lawmaker sexually harassed them. What's their legal recourse?

Meduza
17:37, 2 march 2018

State Duma deputies Irina Guseva, Olga Timofeeva, and Leonid Slutsky at a session of parliament on September 27, 2017

Anton Novoderezhkin / TASS

On February 24, three women journalists, speaking anonymously, told the television station Dozhd they had been harassed by Leonid Slutsky, the chairman of the State Duma’s International Affairs Committee. Dozhd reporter Elizaveta Antonova later said Slutsky “is always coming on to young women journalists.” Three days later, Ekaterina Kotrikadze, RTVI’s deputy chief editor, said she too was harassed by Slutsky roughly seven years ago while she was working for a Georgian television station. Dozhd journalist Darya Zhuk later formally accused Slutsky of trying to kiss and grope her in 2014, filing charges with the Duma’s Ethic Committee. Slutsky denies all the allegations, and many of his fellow lawmakers have rejected or even belittled the journalists’ claims. Meduza spoke to Anna Rivina, a legal sciences scholar and the head of the Nasiliyu.net (No to Violence) project, to learn whether it’s possible in Russia to prove sexual harassment, and what repercussions Leonid Slutsky might face.

It's impossible to file a “harassment” lawsuit in Russia — there's no criminal code against harassment

There's no article concerning harassment in either Russia’s Criminal Code or its Code of Administrative Offenses. Back in 2014, some lawmakers tried to pass such legislation (imposing fines as high as 50,000 rubles, or $880), but the bill didn’t win the support of its State Duma oversight committee.

On February 27, 2018, Oksana Pushkina, the deputy head of the Duma’s Family Affairs Committee, promised to include a provision on penalties for sexual harassment in a bill on equal rights for men and women.

Russia’s Criminal Code does contain Article 133, which prohibits coercive actions of a sexual nature. This criminal code applies to cases where someone is forced to commit sexual acts (including having sex) by means of blackmail, threats, or other manipulations of their dependent status. It can be applied if the fact of coercive behavior has been established, irrespective of the result of that behavior. In other words, it doesn't matter whether or not the victim agreed to commit these actions.

In theory, the women who say they were harassed by Slutsky could sue under Article 133, since he had certain authority over them as the chairman of a State Duma committee. Unfortunately for the journalists, the absence of precedent law in Russia and the lack of any established practice in this area means they could only try to use Article 133, and there’s no guarantee how a court would rule.

Both Russian human rights activists and deputy Oksana Pushkina argue that Article 133 doesn’t work in practice.

Harassment is a form of discrimination, and discrimination is illegal in Russia

Article 3 of the Russian Labor Code clearly states that nobody's labor rights or freedoms can be restricted on the basis of their sex and other circumstances unrelated to their professional qualities. Harassment in the workplace is labor discrimination, as it impedes victims’ work and makes it uncomfortable or impossible for them to perform. For instance, Dozhd journalist Elizaveta Antonova says some women correspondents working at the Duma stopped approaching Slutsky for comments. In other words, his behavior has obstructed them from doing their jobs fully. A person subject to labor discrimination can go to court and demand restoration of their rights, reimbursement for material damages, and compensation for moral damages.

Russia’s Constitution also bans sexual discrimination, meaning that Slutsky’s accusers could also appeal to the Constitutional Court, if lower courts refuse to uphold their rights. Russians can file complaints to the Constitutional Court both privately and collectively, but these lawsuits cannot be anonymous, meaning that victims would need to come forward openly, stating the specifics of how their rights were violated.

You can prove guilt, even if there are no witnesses

In harassment cases, there might not be any witnesses, making it one person’s word against another. In U.S. investigations, courts weigh the persuasiveness of each party, examining the divergences in their versions of events, any anecdotal evidence (in other words, the statements of people who were not present but heard about the situation or witnessed its consequences), and even the tone of prior or subsequent correspondence between the parties.

In Russian courts, you can make your case similarly, also relying on the results of expert testimony, like psychological exams, linguistic analysis, and polygraph tests. Practice shows that legal norms and public perceptions can diverge, however, and this affects how police officers, prosecutors, and judges handle these cases. In other words, even if you can gather evidence, some courts might toss it out as inadmissible or weak.

Slutsky could lose his immunity as a deputy, but that’s for his colleagues in the State Duma to decide

Members of Russia’s State Duma and Federation Council enjoy immunity against administrative and criminal liability. If a case is opened against them, however, their fellow lawmakers have the power to strip them of their immunity. First, investigators must notify the Attorney General’s Office, who then appeals to a chamber of the Federal Assembly. If the chamber decides that no wrongdoing was committed, it clears the deputy of the charges, making it impossible to strip them of immunity, unless new circumstances arise. If the chamber says there was an infraction, the deputy in question has to answer for it in court.

The Duma’s ethics commission can recommend an apology

Another way to challenge the behavior of Russia’s parliamentarians is to submit a formal complaint to the State Duma’s Commission on Deputies' Ethics. The commission considers cases where deputies employ crude, insulting language, make unfounded accusations, use information that they know to be false, call for illegal actions, or violate generally accepted ethical norms of behavior in some other way.

Both Duma deputies and ordinary citizens can appeal to the ethics commission. For instance, before Darya Zhuk’s complaint, Ksenia Sobchak appealed to the commission about Slutsky, saying he violated generally accepted ethical standards.

Judging by Russian deputies' comments, however, there is no consensus in the State Duma on ethical standards relating to harassment. For instance, Oksana Pushkina, the deputy chairperson of the Family Affairs Committee, says harassment is a violation of human rights and freedom, while Ethics Commission member Valery Gartung describes harassment as “a show of attention,” and LDPR faction head Igor Lebedev says the American "fashion of claiming harassment" won't take root in Russia.

Otari Arshba, the head of the Duma’s Ethics Commission, says its members are currently on recess, visiting with their constituents. The group won’t be able to meet until after the presidential election on March 18. If the commission finds that Leonid Slutsky did act inappropriately, it could order him to issue a public apology, publicize information in the mass media about his wrongdoing, or bar him from speaking at one or more sessions of the chamber.

Text by Anna Rivina and Olga Strakhovskaya, translation by Peter Marshall