MOSCOW -- Yelizaveta Aliyeva still hopes for the best. But she fears the worst since her sister Marem disappeared from her Russian North Caucasus home four months ago.
She doesn't want to believe that Marem's husband, Mukharbek Yevloyev, killed her to prevent her from fleeing a marriage that was bringing her nothing but pain and humiliation. But the evidence appears to be mounting.
Yevloyev was detained on January 21. He was placed under two months' house arrest the following day in closed legal proceedings that did not include Yelizaveta or her lawyers. It is not clear under what part of the Criminal Code he is being investigated or what charges, if any, he might face.
The twisted and long-running case in Ingushetia of Marem Aliyeva highlights the Gordian knot of Russia's domestic-violence problem: its absence of laws, lack of police and prosecutorial will, rampant corruption and abuse of office, and cultural conservatism that often masks widespread sexism.
"This story could happen in Tambov, Vladivostok, Volgograd, or Moscow," says lawyer Mari Davtyan of the ANNA Center, which assists victims of domestic violence. "What's more, these stories are repeated regularly. Of course, there are regions where traditions and customs are very strong and they are always a barrier to beginning an investigation in cases involving relatives. Yes, we have clans and family and friendship ties. But basically the same thing is going on in every corner of Russia."
At the time that 37-year-old Marem disappeared, Davtyan was working to place her in one of the handful of shelters for abuse victims in Russia. Marem had complained of violent abuse going back at least 15 years.
Abducted By Gunmen
The cycle of violence that preceded Marem's disappearance began in the summer when she fled her home. She filed a complaint saying that her husband had tortured her, shaved her head, stuffed her head in a plastic bag, and beaten her.
In July, a group of armed men forced Yelizaveta into a car. They threatened and beat her, demanding to know where her sister was hiding.
Eventually, Marem's husband located her in a shelter. He came after her with a group of armed men and forced her to return home with him. On September 19, Marem called her sister.
"She said, in tears, that he was beside himself, that he had threatened her with 'a surprise' and that she would regret that she had run away from him," says Olga Gnezdilova, another lawyer who is helping Yelizaveta.
Before and after Marem vanished, Yelizaveta pushed hard for an investigation and criminal charges, but she met with obstacle after obstacle.
"All of the appeals that Marem and her sister sent to the authorities went unanswered," Gnezdilova says. "We do not have even a single response that the appeals were even registered. There was no follow-up, and no one talked to us. They should have come and talked to people to find out what was going on in that family. But until the disappearance, there were no such conversations. There was nothing."
Yelizaveta told RFE/RL by telephone from her home in Ingushetia that she called the police when her sister vanished "but they refused to take my statement."
"They said: 'You are relatives. You can work it out according to our customs. We can't take your statement because he didn't commit any crime."
Russia has no law specifically against domestic violence, although draft bills have been submitted to the Duma, the lower house of parliament, more than 40 times since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Interior Ministry maintains a register of men who have been reported repeatedly as having beaten their wives or children. As of 2014, officials reported there were 153,000 names on the list, but it was impossible to know for sure: Even victims can't find out if their abusers are on the list. It is unknown if Mukharbek Yevloyev is on the list.
'I Am Afraid'
It took more than three months before an investigation was launched into the case of Yelizaveta's forced abduction in July. At that point, the threats from Yevloyev increased. Sometimes he showed up at the homes of her relatives; sometimes his relatives showed up.
"He is sadistic," Yelizaveta says. "He considers himself a mafia boss and he thinks he can do anything. He told me himself: 'I have bought everything and everyone. There is no one who is going to go against me.' That's why we were afraid and I am still afraid."
Yelizaveta Aliyeva: "I am afraid."
She notes that a close relative of Yevloyev's studies at the police academy. "He has positioned his relatives everywhere," she says. "He has his own markets, gas stations, hotels. He has lots of money. How can I go against him?"
Yelizaveta has been under police protection at home since January 1, but that has provided scant comfort. "I am at home right now, under state protection," she says. "But I don't feel any protection. I sit here like I'm in prison. They don't let me leave the house, as if I'm being held by force."
She adds that although she is protected, her two children are not, despite the threats against them as well. As a result, they have not attended school for weeks.
In addition, she has asked that several of the guards be replaced, saying that some of them were relatives of her brother-in-law and others were drinking or smoking marijuana.
Before he was finally detained on January 21, Yevloyev was freely moving about the region despite being officially under an arrest warrant. Yelizaveta says she saw his car on her street more than once.
At least 10,000 women die each year in Russia as a result of domestic violence. Davtyan estimates that only one in 10 abused women ever files a complaint or seeks help. According to a state study conducted nationally in 2013, one in five Russian women has experienced violence at the hands of a male relative or partner.
Yevloyev's detention is far from the end of the story.
Vitaly Zubenko, a lawyer from Stavropol who is helping Yelizaveta, says it remains unclear what the authorities will do.
"When we are talking about a person with significant connections, then before opening an investigation or concluding one or undertaking any sort of inquiry, they first agree among themselves, find out what sort of support the suspect might have among law enforcement," Zubenko says. "And in the North Caucasus, there are a lot of relatives and clan ties. If a suspect has relatives in the right places, he will not face charges."
The pressure against Yelizaveta is likely to continue. Lawyer Gnezdilova says everything depends on Yelizaveta's strength and determination.
"As a lawyer, it is hard for me to understand, but all of the relatives who have been visited by her sister's husband come to her and say, 'Withdraw your murder complaint,'" Gnezdilova says. "But even if she does, it is unclear what the authorities will do since, after all, a woman has vanished under complicated circumstances. But they are indicating that her complaint is the only obstacle to closing the case and ending the investigation."
"So," she concludes, "it appears that now Yelizaveta's role is the key."