Russian Duma Approves Bill To Soften Domestic-Violence Penalty

MOSCOW -- A controversial bill sharply reducing penalties for many cases of domestic abuse has won final approval in the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

Duma deputies supported the bill by a vote of 380-3, despite criticism from human rights and family protection groups that say it will put women and children in jeopardy.

The bill now goes to the upper house for a single vote and then to President Vladimir Putin for his signature.

For first-time offenders, the bill reduces battery inflicted on a family member from a crime to an administrative misdemeanor, making it punishable by a fine, community service, or up to 15 days in jail instead of a longer prison term.

Backers of the bill, including ultraconservative lawmaker Yelena Mizulina, say it is needed to stop the state from meddling in family affairs. Some also say it is line with Russian traditions as opposed to what one supporter said was a "Western program...aimed to destroy our families."

Mizulina argues the bill removes what she casts as "outrageous" legislation adopted in July 2016 that decriminalized first offenses of battery except in special cases, including when they are committed against "close relatives."

This exception was criticized by conservatives, who dubbed it the “slapping law.”

"For a slap in the family you can get up to two years [in prison] and the label 'criminal' for the rest of your life, but for battery on the street -- a fine of up to 40,000 rubles ($665)," Mizulina said at the time. "This situation is unacceptable. It is necessary to correct criminal legislation and remove these absurd provisions."

Mizulina hailed the Duma’s swift action in comments on her blog on January 27, saying the bill "removes antifamily norms in the law and corrects the outrageous injustice arising from the legislation passed in July 2016 decriminalizing a raft of articles of the criminal code."

Momentum to pass the new bill emerged after President Vladimir Putin’s annual press conference in December, in which he was asked by conservative journalist Elina Zhgutova about the issue highlighted by Mizulina.

Putin said that "it is better not to slap children while citing some kinds of tradition," but suggested legislative measures should not go too far, saying, "We mustn’t go crazy here. It is harmful. It destroys families." He also criticized "skewed standards of juvenile justice."

Zhgutova, in comments to RFE/RL’s Russian Service, said giving a child a cuff on the back of the head is sometimes appropriate and dismissed protestations by rights groups as the product of a tainted Western worldview.

"There exists a certain program, a Western program, which is aimed at destroying our families, at allowing interference under whatever pretext, at destroying trust," she said. "Why should a wife trust the state more than her husband whom she chose to spend her life with out of love. No one forced her. Why should she have to deal with police inside this family?"

The bill has been widely criticized by family protection groups, international rights groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and by activists such as Anna Popova, who protested outside the Duma on January 27.

Popova has gathered almost 240,000 signatures in an online petition calling for the bill not to be passed, saying that 40 percent of all grave violent crimes occur inside the family in Russia.

An opinion survey by state pollster VTsIOM this month found that 79 percent of Russians believe that all physical violence is unacceptable inside the family, but 59 percent support administrative rather than criminal punishment for battery if it is the first offense.

Popova said the bill will make domestic abuse victims more vulnerable and put them in a weaker position to seek help if in trouble. She told RFE/RL’s Russian Service she believes the decision to change the legislation "was sent down by Putin himself" and that the bill violates the constitution.

Amnesty International has called on Russian lawmakers to abandon the legislation.

"This bill is a sickening attempt to trivialize domestic violence, which has long been viewed as a nonissue by the Russian government," Anna Kirey, deputy director for Campaigns for Russia and Eurasia at the London-based group, said in a January 19 statement.

"Far too often, victims find they cannot rely on the law for protection and their abusers are let off the hook, with only a tiny fraction imprisoned for their actions," she said.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service