Three sisters now aged 18, 19 and 20 were charged with the premeditated murder of their father, Mikhail Khachaturyan last month.
Court reports have shown that the sisters were repeatedly beaten and sexually abused by their father, a war veteran. He had kept knifes, guns and rifles at home despite being diagnosed with a neurological disorder and was known to shoot indoors. He had also repeatedly threatened his neighbours and family with violence. In the year prior to the attack, the girls attended less than two months of classes in total, but the school administration did not interfere.
According to USA Today, on the evening of his death Mikhail had thought that his living room was not tidy enough and doused his three teenage daughters in pepper spray in response. The sisters decided they could not take the abuse anymore and attacked him with a kitchen knife and a hammer after he fell asleep in his rocking chair. He put up a fight but died within minutes.
The sisters’ lawyers have said that the girls were driven to the edge and were acting in justified self-defence in circumstances of lasting abuse and life-threatening violence. Krestina’s lawyer, Alexei Lipster, said that on the first day they met Krestina told her she was better off in jail than living at home the way she had been.
President Vladimir Putin signed a law in 2017 that decriminalised some forms of domestic violence. Domestic violence has no fixed definition in the Russian legislation and police routinely turn a blind eye to cases of domestic abuse. Preventive measures, such as restraining orders, are either lacking or not in wide use.
Yulia Gorbunova, who authored a report on domestic violence in Russia for Human Rights Watch last year says “The Khachaturyan case is quite indicative of the general situation with domestic violence and how the Russian state responds to this problem”. Human Rights Watch has documented cases where “a very clear case of self-defence” was not recognised as such by prosecutors and led to the victim’s imprisonment. 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.
Nevertheless, Gorbunova says that the public perception of domestic violence has been changing, triggered by high profile cases like that of the Khachaturyan sisters.More than 200,000 people have signed an online petition urging the prosecutors to drop the murder charges that could send the sisters to prison for up to 20 years if found guilty. Supporters have also protested outside Russian embassies in more than 20 locations globally. A major rally was planned for Central Moscow on Saturday, but it was cancelled as City Hall refused to provide security for the event. The charges have thus sparked international protest and have once again shone light on the way in which Russia deals with cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Theater Doc also staged a performance in solidarity last week. Zarema Zaudinova, the 29-year-old director, combined the sister’s case with her own personal stories. For Zaudinova, the charges against the Khachaturyan sisters 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”.
The sisters have been released on bail and barred from seeing each other, witnesses in the case or the media. They are reportedly in good spirits. “At least, no one is beating them up,” Liptser says.