‘It was their lives or his’ Leading women's rights attorney Mari Davtyan explains the domestic violence case that's bringing Russians out into the streets
In mid-June, Russia’s Investigative Committee released its final draft of the charges against Krestina, Angelina, and Maria Khachaturyan. In a case that has lasted about a year so far, the sisters are facing charges of murder committed by a conspiracy of multiple individuals: they stabbed their father after surviving years of constant abuse at his hands. The statute that was used to charge the Khachaturyans carries a sentence of eight to 20 years in prison. The sisters’ attorneys have submitted an appeal to Investigative Committee Director Alexander Bastrykin. They argue that the Khachaturyans committed an act of “necessary self-defense” against their father, Mikhail, to escape confinement, potentially fatal assaults, and rape. In Russian jurisprudence, this means they should be charged with a lesser crime that carries a far lower sentence. An international campaign for the sisters has accompanied the case, with protesters around the world joining artists like Armenian-American musician Serj Tankian in calling for the Khachaturyans to be released. Meduza special correspondent Sasha Sulim discussed the case with attorney Mari Davtyan, who co-authored a bill to prevent intimate partner and family violence that activists are still pushing Russia’s government to consider.
Sasha Sulim: How are you connected to the Khachaturyan sisters’ case?
Mari Davtyan: The Center for the Defense of Domestic Violence Victims is a playing advisory role in the case, and the Center is part of the Consortium of Women’s NGOs, which I direct. I do not represent any of the sisters myself [as an attorney].
If I’m not mistaken, you were among the first, if not the first, attorneys called to represent the sisters.
Dina Karpitskaya [a journalist for Komsomolskaya Pravda] reached out to me after she had spoken with [Moscow public observer Ivan] Melnikov and realized the girls didn’t have an attorney. That was in August of 2018. I couldn’t get involved in the case myself back then because I was working on another complex case. I immediately called [attorney] Alexey Parshin, and he got in touch with Yaroslav Pakulin. I think it was Melnikov who called Alexey Liptser, who is representing the third sister.
In any criminal case, especially when such a serious charge is involved, preliminary testimony [given the first time a suspect is questioned by police] plays an important role. At the same time, the sisters didn’t have attorneys in those early stages. Did that cause any errors in the case?
I don’t know the circumstances of the court case in that much detail, and I wouldn’t have the right to comment on any substantial aspect of it, let alone discuss the case materials themselves. Broadly speaking, in similar self-defense cases, the woman typically admits guilt immediately — meaning that she confesses to the killing. This happens because she simply doesn’t understand all the legal nuances and the difference between the concept of “killing” (the same word as “murder” in Russian — Meduza) and “causing death in a context of necessary self-defense.” The investigator asks her, “Did you stab him with a knife?” and she answers, “Yes, I stabbed him.” “So you killed him?” “Yes, I killed him.” The woman feels it would be stupid to deny that, so she signs a confession.
What exactly can be done in these cases?
As long as you don’t have a trustworthy attorney with you and as long as you haven’t discussed what happened with that attorney, you should invoke Article 51 of the Constitution [on the right to avoid self-incrimination] and keep silent. Otherwise, it’ll all come back around later on. They’ll tell you that you confessed to murder, and your initial testimony will be used against you.
In these cases, we always run into situations where the investigator only includes what fits into their impression of Article 105 [of Russia’s Criminal Codex; on murder] in their protocol on the case. They write down that the woman picked up a knife and used it to stab the husband, but they leave out the fact that the husband was beating her. They say it doesn’t pertain to the case.
The Khachaturyan sisters’ case has received widespread media coverage since it was first opened. How has that attention affected the investigation?
The most obvious consequence of the media coverage has been the fact that the case was transferred from the district level to the central branch of Moscow’s Investigative Committee. That has allowed for a more meticulous approach to the case, a more cautious investigation, and we hope it will help avoid any gross mishandling of the case or violations of the girls’ rights. The victims themselves often don’t want that attention. They don’t want strangers to learn the details of their private lives, but I don’t know of any cases when that coverage did anybody harm.
Is the fact that the sisters were released from pretrial detention [to a curfew and limited communication] after two months also a consequence of coverage in the media?
It’s not uncommon for courts to release women from pretrial detention if it’s a self-defense case. In an ideal world, they would only jail people to await trial if those people could be a danger to society, affect the investigation of their case, destroy evidence, or flee. In this case, the Khachaturyan sisters present no danger to investigators, so keeping them in pretrial detention would only cause needless suffering. Allowing them to await trial under other conditions was entirely humane. Everybody thinks that if someone is accused of a very serious crime, that person should automatically await trial in jail, but that shouldn’t be the deciding factor in a judge’s choice.
How can domestic violence be demonstrated?
The first thing the court pays attention to is witness testimony, be it from friends, classmates, or neighbors. In this case, there’s a huge amount of testimony from neighbors, who also regularly suffered from [Mikhail] Khachaturyan’s behavior. For example, one neighbor said he threatened her with a pistol, and all things considered, that was typical, regular behavior for him.
Forensic and psychological tests are another important form of evidence. The case materials also include information on previous complaints to the police that concerned Khachaturyan — the sisters’ mother went to the police many times. You can also fill out the picture using an examination of the scene of the crime: it’s easy to confirm the fact that we’re talking about a man who regularly discharged firearms in his own apartment if you do a ballistics test.
Why, if they had all this evidence, did investigators keep their initial classification of the case — that is, murder committed by a conspiracy of multiple individuals?
That’s a standard step for investigators. They always go with the harshest charge possible. We run into that all the time — they must have instructions from the inside to act that way. Even when the self-defense is clear as day, they still charge people with murder.
So this is all because of inertia on the investigators’ part?
It’s easier for them this way. If you uncover a case under Article 105 (murder), you’ll get a prize for it, but if it’s 108 (murder committed in the course of necessary self-defense) or 113 (serious physical harm committed in the course of necessary self-defense), nobody cares. Investigators give maximum charges and assume the judge should be the one to reclassify them if necessary.
At what stage could the charges be reclassified, then?
The judge could do it during the sentencing process. Or the court could find inconsistencies in the prosecution’s closing arguments and return the case to the prosecutor’s office, which would transfer it back to the investigator, who would have to reclassify the case independently. More often than not, though, reclassification happens in these cases when the sentence is announced.
What’s the argument for reclassifying this case as a murder “committed in the course of necessary self-defense from ongoing violence”? Some skeptics are saying that the concept of self-defense isn’t applicable here because the killing did not take place while Khachaturyan was attacking one of the sisters.
That’s a common impression of the necessary self-defense concept: somebody attacks you, you immediately begin defending yourself, and you kill the person as a result. There’s a decree from a plenary session of the Supreme Court of Russia that says if somebody is subject to an ongoing, long-term crime such as years of torture or unlawful confinement, that person can defend themselves at any point in the course of the crime — at any point when they have the chance and the strength.
Imagine a hostage situation or a kidnapping where somebody waits for the attacker to fall asleep so they can defend themselves. Would those critics say there’s no necessary self-defense then too? No. There is because the crime is ongoing, and the victim is taking advantage of what is both a physical and a psychological opportunity to defend themselves whenever that opportunity arises.
We know that the sisters lived for a very long time in a psychologically traumatic situation and that their father’s ongoing actions caused them serious and constant harm, including personality disorders. Official examinations have confirmed that fact. Our Criminal Codex considers causing mental illnesses to be an act of serious harm to the health of another. They defended themselves when they had a psychological opportunity to do so.
The same skeptics would say that the hostage comparison is incorrect because the father didn’t handcuff the sisters to their beds, and they could have run away while he was sleeping.
And then what? Where would they run? When a person is in a long-term, traumatic situation, it becomes extremely difficult to get out of that situation. What’s more, they knew that the police were afraid of their father and that every complaint that was submitted against him was sent back to the father himself. He threatened to kill them many times, and they knew perfectly well that if they ran away, he would find them, and that would be the end of their lives. It was their lives or his — there were no other options. He threatened to kill them multiple times. Could they expect him to kill them? Certainly!
Where could they go? The school, which knew everything already? I mean, he essentially failed to fulfill his responsibility as a parent to ensure his children received an education, but the school didn’t do anything on that count — it only went through the motions. They knew that the complaints their mom had made to the police had immediately ended up in their father’s hands. He even beat her once in the police station with the police officers present. In those circumstances, could they have called the police? Could they have gotten at least a little bit of protection? No!
If they had gone somewhere, what we would have is three corpses, and they probably would never have been found. That can happen easily — nobody cared about them. He could easily have killed all three of them and buried them in the forest, and nobody would even have started looking for them. If some teacher had asked why the girls weren’t going to school, he would have said he had married them off in Armenia [where the family is from].
What reclassification would be most suitable for this case, in your opinion?
I’m in solidarity with my colleagues who are representing the sisters in that I think we’re talking about necessary self-defense. It’s extremely complex self-defense because the crime was ongoing over an extended period, but he caused serious damage to their health, and their lives were constantly under threat.
What about the investigators’ accusation that their actions were premeditated?
The investigators have to prove that they were premeditated. But in a case of necessary self-defense, that circumstance has no significance: necessary self-defense can be premeditated. There’s no legal exception for it, especially when it comes to long-term events. If you take the hostage example, the victim saves their own life by waiting for the captor to fall asleep and then taking any necessary actions.
So that means the fact that he was sleeping when they attacked him also isn’t an aggravating circumstance?
Well, it’s extremely logical: if he were awake, they wouldn’t have been able to fight him. He would have just shot them all, end of story. Though you do have to consider certain circumstances: on that same day, he applied pepper spray directly to their faces, and the oldest daughter lost consciousness as a result. They knew that when he woke up, that torture would continue.
Then could you say that the sisters were mentally incapable of carrying responsibility for their actions in this case?
Usually, that kind of claim is supported by psychiatric tests, and they didn’t make that conclusion in this case. But they did confirm personality disorders in all three girls: PTSD, what’s commonly called battered child syndrome, and the youngest sister was granted an insanity defense.
Will that be a mitigating circumstance in this case?
The court doesn’t have the right to imprison the youngest sister at all. She can only be sentenced to mandatory psychological treatment. But the older girls need rehabilitation, too.
Could the presence of these mental illnesses affect the requalification of the case in any way?
It’s hard to say, but in any case, the court will have to take into account the fact that two of the sisters could not be held entirely responsible for their actions and one was not held responsible at all. In addition, examinations have confirmed that the sisters were in a psychologically traumatic situation for an extended period of time, and that situation was caused by the father’s criminal actions.
People who criticize the Khachaturyan sisters’ attorneys say that if the sisters are acquitted, that will open the door to future abuse of the self-defense provision by actual murderers. Is that even possible?
The investigators always play first violin, and they’ll always classify cases like these under Article 105 (murder). What kind of abuse could happen here? Will people start killing other people and claim they were tortured? But then they would have to prove it! In this case, a situation was created that gave the girls no other way out, and psychological tests have proven that. They felt trapped.
Why do the sisters’ attorneys want there to be a criminal case against Mikhail Khachaturyan?
Every violent crime committed against a human being should be investigated. According to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the European Convention on Women’s Rights, women have the right for violence against them to be investigated. The sisters said in their testimony that Khachaturyan committed violence against them, and evidence of that circumstance should be put forward for investigation. Unfortunately, our investigators often decide that if the suspect has already died, you don’t have to conduct an investigation, but that isn’t true.
Would that be necessary because it strengthens the defense’s case? Why bring criminal charges against someone who can’t answer for them in court?
Yes, it’s needed in part to strengthen the defense’s case. Investigators should change their direction for good and conduct an objective, thorough examination of the sisters’ assertions. And in any case, the victims have a right to an investigation of the circumstances surrounding the violence committed against them. That right is established in both Russian and international law.
How many women who survive domestic violence end up in prison because they were forced to kill their abuser?
The government doesn’t collect any such statistics. But over the course of the years I’ve spent in this profession, I’ve formed the impression that 80 percent of women who land in pretrial detention on murder or self-defense charges have survived domestic violence at the hands of close relatives and ultimately killed them. Women die at the hands of men close to them, and men die at the hands of other, less familiar men.
We punish the abusers themselves very lightly: you can land in prison for stealing two bottles of vodka and get a year of limited freedom of movement for breaking your wife’s arm.
It’s my sense that the media has started covering domestic violence more since it was decriminalized [in 2017]. Has anything changed for the better?
What’s changing for the better is the public consciousness, and that’s thanks in part to journalists. Things are moving in two different directions now: on one hand, there’s society, which has started understanding this problem significantly better than it did 10 – 12 years ago, and on the other — 10 years ago, we believed a law against domestic violence could be adopted, and the government was even taking steps in that direction. Today, we can continue to believe, but the government isn’t going that way any longer.
The idea that “it was her own fault” will keep working in court and during investigations until things start working as they should on the government level. Why did we need the bill [against domestic violence]? We had to define the phenomenon at hand and formulate mechanisms to protect people against it. On top of that, there’s a concept called inter-agency collaboration that applies when we talk about how government services and agencies should work tog to prevent domestic violence. For that to work effectively, you have to train employees who understand why it’s not “her own fault,” why she didn’t leave, and so on. When the government decriminalized domestic violence, it emphasized that it doesn’t see this as violence — it sees this as a private family matter, and police officers deal with these cases accordingly.
Why has the government put up such a fight against the bill?
In our time, Russia has become the last stronghold for the patriarchal world in Europe, and it’s holding tight onto that patriarchy as though it’s something sacred. Patriarchy is an ideology of strict power hierarchies that always rests on power hierarchies within the family. This is all absolutely ideological.