Three teenage sisters who killed their father after suffering years of physical and sexual abuse are facing murder charges in Russia in a case that has sparked protests and a debate about domestic violence.
Maria, Angelina, and Krestina Khachaturyan bludgeoned and stabbed their 57-year-old father, Mikhail, to death as he dozed in an armchair at the family’s flat in northern Moscow last July. They were 17, 18 and 19 years old at the time. They reported the attack to police and admitted carrying it out, saying they believed their lives were at risk if they did not take action.
Investigators determined that the sisters were beaten almost daily by their father, who also forced them to perform sexual acts. He had physically abused them on the day of the fatal attack, locking them in a room and assaulting them with pepper spray.
The sisters’ mother, Aurelia Dunduk, told Russian media that Mikhail Khachaturyan regularly beat her, including with a baseball bat, before throwing her out of the house in 2016. She said police refused to bring charges, when she complained. Her ex-husband also told the sisters he would kill their mother, if they went to live with her.
Lawyers for the sisters said they had been conditioned from an early age to think of themselves as slaves. “The sisters had only one choice – to defend themselves, or die,” said Anna Rivina, the head of an anti-domestic violence organisation in Moscow.
The sisters were all charged this month with premeditated murder. Angelina and Krestina face up to 20 years in prison. Maria, a child at the time, could be imprisoned for up to 10 years.
The decision to bring murder charges has been met with protests. In Moscow, hundreds of people gathered last week outside the headquarters of the Investigative Committee law enforcement agency. Activists are continuing to picket its offices almost daily, while a larger rally in support of the sisters is scheduled in Moscow on 6 July. Demonstrations have also taken place at Russian embassies or consulates around the world, and Russian cultural figures have spoken out in defence of the sisters.
“There was no one they could turn to. Police in Russia think that domestic violence is a private, family affair and that there is no reason for them to get involved in this,” said Rivina. “The government can’t and won’t defend victims of domestic violence. Those women who are forced to defend themselves often end up in prison.”
Although there are no official statistics, MediaZona, an independent news website, has calculated that about 80% of all women convicted of murder in Russia were previously abused by violent partners. Human rights groups say at least 16 million women annually face domestic violence in Russia. A popular saying is: “If he beats you, it means he loves you.”
Alexei Parshin, a lawyer for one of the Khachaturyan sisters, said they were holding up well and had been buoyed by public support. They are currently living separately with relatives, under strict curfews, and barred from communicating with each other before the trial, which is expected to begin in August.
Parshin accused investigators of lacking the courage to quash or downgrade the murder charges. “They don’t want to take responsibility for this,” he said.
Russia is one of the few countries in the world not to have specific laws on domestic violence. In 2017, it decriminalised some forms of domestic violence for first-time offenders. Under current Russian law, violence against a spouse or children that does not result in broken bones is punishable by a 30,000-rouble (£375) fine or a 15-day jail sentence. Human rights groups say the average punishment is only a 5,000-rouble (£62) fine.
Women’s rights campaigners say incidences of domestic violence have increased since the law was changed.
In November, a man was sentenced to 14 years in prison after chopping off his wife’s hands. Days before the attack, he had forcibly taken her to a forest near Moscow and threatened to kill her. His wife reported the threats to police but officers took no action. In August, a man in Votkinsk, central Russia, who stabbed his wife to death in front of the couple’s five-year-old child, walked free after a court reclassified murder charges as a “crime of passion”.