MOSCOW (AP) — One evening last summer, Mikhail Khachaturyan decided that his living room wasn’t tidy enough, so he summoned his three teenage daughters one by one and doused each with pepper spray.
Such violence and abuse was not unusual in the Khachaturyan household, according to court records. But Maria, Angelina and Krestina Khachaturyan decided they couldn’t take it anymore. They waited until their father fell asleep in his rocking chair and attacked him with a kitchen knife and a hammer. He put up a fight but died within minutes.
The sisters, now aged 18, 19 and 20, were charged last month with premeditated murder in a case that has drawn outrage and illustrated how the Russian justice system handles domestic violence and sexual abuse cases.
More than 200,000 people have signed an online petition urging prosecutors to drop the murder charges, which could land the sisters in prison for up to 20 years.
Their supporters have protested outside Russian embassies in more than 20 locations abroad, and a theater has staged a show in solidarity. They had planned a major rally in central Moscow on Saturday, but said they had to cancel it, citing a refusal by city hall to provide security for the gathering.
“The Khachaturyan case is quite indicative of the general situation with domestic violence and how the Russian state responds to this problem,” says Yulia Gorbunova, who wrote an extensive report on domestic violence for Human Rights Watch last year.
Pressured by conservative family groups, President Vladimir Putin in 2017 signed a law decriminalizing some forms of domestic violence, which has no fixed definition in Russian legislation. Police routinely turn a blind eye to cases of domestic abuse, while preventive measures, such as restraining orders, are either lacking or not in wide use.
Court filings showed that the Khachaturyan sisters were repeatedly beaten and sexually abused by their father, a war veteran. He had kept a stockpile of knives, guns and rifles at home despite having been diagnosed with a neurological disorder. He repeatedly threatened neighbors and family with violence.
Lawyers for the Khachaturyan sisters say their clients were driven to the edge.
“The first day we met,” Krestina’s lawyer Alexei Liptser said, “she said she’s better off here, in jail, than living at home the way she had been.”
Going to the police was not an option because the sisters feared that things would only get worse. They had shared some of the horrors they had experienced with their friends but pleaded with them not to go to the police. In the year before the attack, the girls attended fewer than two months of classes in total, but the school administration did not interfere.
Prosecutors acknowledge the extraordinarily violent circumstances that pushed the teenagers to kill their father but insisted they should be tried for murder. The sisters’ lawyers argue that they were acting in self-defense in circumstances of lasting abuse and life-threatening violence.
The sisters have been released on bail and are barred from seeing each other, meeting with witnesses in the case and talking to the media. They are reportedly in good spirits. “At least, no one is beating them up,” Liptser says.
The case inspired 29-year-old Zarema Zaudinova to direct a show at the underground Theater Doc last week, combining the sisters’ experiences with performers’ own personal stories. Some members of the audience walked out after one of the more graphic accounts of abuse.
For Zaudinova, the Khachaturyan case was the last straw.
“We have no protection,” she says. “We will either get raped or we will get thrown into prison if we defend ourselves.”
Research on Russian criminal court cases compiled by the outlet Media Zona shows that of 2,500 women convicted of manslaughter or murder in 2016 to 2018, nearly 2,000 killed a family member in a domestic violence setting.
Human Rights Watch has documented cases where “a very clear case of self-defense” was not recognized as such by prosecutors and led to the victim’s imprisonment, according to Gorbunova.
“The choice is not whether you go to the police and get help,” she says. “The choice for these women was either to die or they had to protect themselves to the best of their ability.”
Almost 2,000 people have recently posted first-person accounts of abuse and victim-blaming to social media, after a young woman facing criminal charges for injuring her alleged rapist launched the hashtag #It’snotmyfault.
The bill to replace jail terms with fines in certain cases of domestic violence breezed through the Russian parliament in 2017 and was promptly signed by Putin. Despite its detrimental effect on domestic violence victims, the measure sparked a rare public debate on the issue in a country where a proverb goes: “If he beats you that means he loves you.”
Gorbunova says that public perception of domestic violence has been changing, triggered by the highly publicized court cases like that of the Khachaturyans or the case of Margarita Gracheva, whose husband, previously reported to police for threatening violence, took her to a forest and chopped off her hands. Gracheva endured online bullying and accusations of “provoking” her spouse before he was sentenced to 14 years in prison last year, a rare victory for a domestic violence victim in Russia.
The women of Theater Doc say the outcome of the Khachaturyan case would send a strong message to Russian society.
“We need to fight for it, and talk loud and clear about it,” says Zaudinova, who herself told a story onstage of being molested by a male relative at the age of 12. “If the girls get sent to prison and the court doesn’t acknowledge that that was self-defense, they will be putting more people in prison and you won’t be able to do anything to the person who decided to rape you.”