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Aiman Omarova (right) specializes in seeking justice for victims of sexual abuse and also represents people who believe they are being prosecuted for political reasons.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- A prominent Kazakh human rights lawyer who aided a woman who helped expose "reeducation camps" for Muslims in neighboring China says she believes her car was tampered with in an attempt to injure her because of her professional activities.

Aiman Omarova, who also represents victims of sexual abuse and was a recipient of the U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage Award for 2018, said she survived a car fire that started after a brake malfunction late on May 18.

Omarova, who has also worked as a lawyer for RFE/RL, said her car's brakes suddenly stopped functioning while she was driving and after it stopped abruptly, the front started burning.

"I am confident that it is linked to my professional activities. Luckily, I was driving slowly, when I found out that the brakes stopped working. I started screaming. When I was thinking about somehow turning the car to stop it or jumping out of it, it stopped and at that point the fire started.... Some important documents are gone. I am in a deep stress, " Omarova told RFE/RL.

Omarova successfully represented RFE/RL last month in a case over inaction by Almaty police over an attack on RFE/RL reporters.

Last year, Omarova said unknown individuals killed her dog, which she said was also an act linked to her professional activities.

She also said somebody hung a dead cat on the gate of her home in what she believes was meant as a warning.

Omarova specializes in seeking justice for victims of sexual abuse, mainly women and children, and also represents people who believe they are being prosecuted for political reasons or to stifle dissent in tightly controlled Kazakhstan.

Her dog's death came shortly after she helped Sairagul Sauytbay, who fled China in 2018, leave Kazakhstan for Sweden after Kazakh authorities refused to give her political asylum.

At a trial in Kazakhstan on charges of illegal border crossing, Sauytbay testified that thousands of ethnic Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and other Muslims in China's Xinjiang province were undergoing "political indoctrination" in a network of "reeducation camps."

Revelations from Sauytbay and others have created diplomatic difficulties for energy-rich Kazakhstan in its relationship with China.

There has been a rise in incidents of domestic violence in Russia since the lockdown began in March. (file photo)

MOSCOW -- When the lockdown order came, Yevgenia found herself shut in with a recidivist abuser.

Her husband had beaten her two weeks earlier, and she knew he was capable of doing so again. She had begun making plans to leave.

“If not for the coronavirus, perhaps I’d have managed to avoid this situation,” she said in a phone interview from Yekaterinburg, where she lives.

In the end, the fight erupted over a block of butter. She bought a cheap brand to save money -- they had both found themselves unemployed -- and he flew into a rage, she said.

She ran out of the apartment, locked the door from the outside, and called the police.

“This time I wanted to go all out,” she said. “I had the guts to file a complaint, to document my injuries, to leave him, to block him from my life.”

But the officers who arrived didn’t share her concerns. They refused to detain her husband and told her to make amends, she said. Yevgenia ultimately apprehended an older policeman out on patrol, who accepted her complaint and took her to the hospital.

She moved in with a friend to avoid seeing her husband. Because of the risk of infection and travel restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, she could not join relatives in another city.

But she followed through on her pledge to sever ties with her husband. “His friends and relatives would have blamed me as usual,” she said. “My husband always said that I drove him to that state, that I’m guilty for whatever beatings I get.”

Culture Wars

The story recounted by Yevgenia, who asked that her last name be withheld for safety reasons, is typical of accounts from victims of domestic violence across Russia. The problem has worsened in other countries as well since lockdown measures were imposed: The World Health Organization has warned of a worldwide spike in April, noting an up to 60 percent increase in the number of emergency calls from women in EU member states.

But in Russia, figures testifying to a growth in domestic-violence complaints have escalated an acrimonious and longstanding clash over cultural values, fueling mutual recriminations between women’s rights activists warning of a deepening societal scourge and their conservative opponents, who assert that “domestic violence” shouldn’t even exist as a term.

“This is a problem plucked out of thin air,” said Vitaly Milonov, a lawmaker in parliament’s lower house who is a prominent crusader against gay rights and liberal values. “Violence is a punishable offense. Why do we need to single out domestic violence?”

Along with a group of other conservative lawmakers, Milonov has appealed to Russia’s prosecutor-general to investigate media outlets that report a rise in domestic violence, arguing that such claims “undermine marriage as an institution.”

The lawmakers’ comments are in line with the views of a vocal minority in Russian society, backed informally by the Russian Orthodox Church, that has denounced proposed measures to tackle domestic violence as part of an attempt to undermine what opponents of such measures call “traditional” values.

Russian activists advocating what they describe as traditional family values attend a rally against a new domestic-violence law in Moscow in November 2019.
Russian activists advocating what they describe as traditional family values attend a rally against a new domestic-violence law in Moscow in November 2019.

The article that provoked the latest salvo appeared on April 22 in business daily RBC, noting a 24 percent increase in the number of calls to a nationwide crisis hotline for women.

The evidence of an increase does not come only from the media and civil society. On May 5, Russia’s human rights commissioner, Tatyana Moskalkova, reported a two-and-a-half-fold rise in incidents of domestic violence since lockdowns began at the end of March. “The outlook is not optimistic,” she told state news agency RIA Novosti.

Milonov instead cites a very different set of figures. The Interior Ministry said that the number of registered “crimes in the family and domestic sphere” was 13 percent lower than last year, apparently comparing the statistics from April 2019 and April 2020.

Women’s rights activists say such statistics do not reflect reality. They argue that only a small minority of women in Russia report violence to the police -- and that when they do, officers often refuse to impose charges or pursue the case due to the administrative burden and the likelihood of the alleged perpetrator’s acquittal. A law partially decriminalizing domestic violence, which President Vladimir Putin signed in February 2017, has ushered in what critics warn is a climate of impunity for abusers.

And lockdown measures during the pandemic, they say, have placed those women who are unable to leave home and seek refuge in an even more precarious position.

“The number of domestic violence cases has dropped because women are too scared to call the police,” said Yelena Zolotilova, director of the Regional Centre for the Prevention of Violence. “She can only call if the man leaves. But where will he leave?”

'We Can’t Really Help Women Right Now'

In a phone interview from Rostov-on-Don, the southern city where the organization is based, Zolotilova said a woman had recently called the NGO after her intoxicated husband beat her and left her at home with her mother-in-law and her disabled son. She was unable to leave due to strict lockdown measures, violation of which risks a minimum 4,000-ruble fine ($55). But she feared violence would resume with her husband’s return.

Zolotilova’s NGO owns a three-bedroom apartment that functions as a shelter for victims of domestic violence, but one victim is already living there and the quarantine regime means Zolotilova cannot make the accommodation available to the woman in question.

“We can’t really help women right now. All the hotels are closed, we don’t have the funds to rent more apartments, and there’s no crisis center in Rostov-on-Don,” she said, referring to dedicated shelters for women. “Before we’d send them to other regions, but now we simply can’t help.” So she and her volunteers offer verbal support, dispensing advice by phone.

Russians' Views Of Domestic Violence
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WATCH: Russians' Views Of Domestic Violence

The ANNA Center, a women’s rights NGO that Putin’s government has labeled a “foreign agent” because it subsists partly on foreign grants, told RFE/RL it has recorded a 31 percent increase in calls to its emergency hotline for women since Russia’s coronavirus epidemic began in March. There were 2,050 calls in February, deputy director Andrei Sinelnikov said -- in April that number had risen to 2,682.

“Our consultants are literally inundated with calls,” he said in a phone interview. “We’re only able to answer 20 percent of incoming calls.”

Armed with a new grant from Avon, a British-based cosmetics company that has pledged money to tackle domestic violence globally, the ANNA Center is doubling its workforce to more than 20 employees and volunteers working remotely across Russia. The hotline has been active from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. -- now it is to run 24 hours per day.

A proposed domestic-violence law, which would bring Russia’s legal system closer in line with most Western countries, has stalled in its passage through parliament. In the meantime, the group of female lawmakers that is actively lobbying the legislation has asked the government to exempt victims of domestic conflicts from punishment for violating quarantine measures.

In one Siberian city, a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old who complained to police of sexual harassment on April 22 were subsequently charged with violating quarantine measures -- a scenario the lawmakers’ group and other activists want to avoid. The man who allegedly harassed the teenagers was arrested.

Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Russian parliament’s upper house, the Federation Council, said legislators would return to discussions of that domestic violence bill once the pandemic passes. “I doubt there’ll be a spike in domestic violence. On the contrary, families are going through this tough period together,” she told RBC on April 22.

Oksana Pushkina, a maverick lawmaker who is the public face of the campaign for legislation on domestic violence, had a darker prediction.

“If we don’t introduce this law,” she said. “We’ll be grappling with the consequences of this pandemic for decades."

With reporting by Maria Karnaukh of Current Time

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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