Khachaturian sisters case
The case of the Khachaturyan sisters (Russian: Дело сестёр Хачатурян) is an ongoing high profile criminal case in Russia that elicited public outrage about domestic violence in the country. Sisters Kristina, Angelina and Maria Khachaturyan were arrested on 28 July 2018 and charged with premeditated murder of their father, Mikhail Khachaturian. When the crime was committed the sisters were 19, 18 and 17 years old. On 14 June 2019 the charges were upgraded to that of premeditated murder “committed by a group of persons or as a result of conspiracy" (Russian Criminal Code, article 105.2(g)), punishable by up to twenty years of imprisonment. The defense stated that sisters acted in self-defence, having no other choice, as they were subjected to constant violence and sexual abuse by their father for a long period of time prior to the alleged crime. There has been a large-scale public outcry over the case, with social activists defending the sisters. Public protests have been held in Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and other cities supporting the sisters, and calling for a change in legislation governing domestic violence and its prevention.
On the evening of 27 July 2018, the body of 57-year-old Mikhail Khachaturyan was found with «multiple stab and cut wounds on the chest and neck» on the staircase of his apartment building on the Altufevskoe highway in Moscow. During the search, police seized numerous weapons from the Khachaturian’s apartment: a knife, a hammer, a crossbow, a rifle, two air guns, a traumatic weapon, 16 bullets, and 16 darts. The next day his three daughters were arrested on suspicion of murder: Krestina, Angelina and Maria, aged 19, 18 and 17. When questioned, they admitted to the act of murder and disclosed a reason for committing a crime, recorded by investigators as a «hostile personal relationship due to the father causing moral suffering for a prolonged time.» On 29 July they were charged with murder without aggravating circumstances. As the defendants testified, Mikhail had beaten and humiliated his daughters, and also caused them moral assault and sexual abuse over the years.
As shown by the investigation, on the day of his death, Mikhail Khachaturyan returned home after medical treatment at the Solovyov Psychiatric and Neurological Centre and again punished his daughters for extra expenses and «mess» in their apartment. The man locked himself in a room with each of them and sprayed gas from a pepper spray into girls’ faces. Poisoned by a large dose of gas, Krestina fainted due to an asthma attack. Then Angelina and Maria, fearing for the health of their older sister, decided to kill their father. In the evening, while Mikhail was dozing in an armchair, two younger sisters attacked him by hitting with a hunting knife and a hammer. Awoken, Khachaturian tried to defend himself. Krestina heard the noise, came into the room, and dispersed pepper spray in the direction of her father, to protect her sisters. She then ran to the stairs outside the apartment. Khachaturian followed her. Angelina grabbed the knife from Maria and stabbed Mikhail once in the heart, killing him. After Khachaturian’s death, his daughters cut themselves with the knife to make it appear that he attacked them, and called the emergency police line.
Shortly after the arrest, journalists started publishing audio recordings and the correspondence of the girls, which would prove that they suffered violence and sexual harassment from their father. Their lawyers adopted a defense strategy that denied a premeditated conspiracy, and focused on the spontaneity of the murder due to the difficult emotional condition of the sisters.
Along with the main investigation, members of the Public Monitoring Commission initiated an inspection of local child protection agencies. In the opinion of the defence, the organisations did not take the necessary steps after receiving complaints about the Khachaturian father from the sisters’ school teachers. Moreover, Michail Khachaturian was repeatedly reported to the police, but after the murder, law enforcement agencies denied that they received such complaints both via the hotline and to the local police station. Girls’ mother, Aurelia Dunduk suggested that police inaction was due to Khachaturian’s close ties with the local police chiefs. This information was subsequently confirmed by the Novaya Gazeta informants from the federal security agency.
Aurelia Dunduk met her future husband in 1996, three years after her move to Moscow. According to her, Khachaturian began beating her when she was 19 years old and was pregnant with their first child, son Sergey. Later, she characterised their marriage as follows: "We got married with tears in my eyes. He beat me — and after that, we went to get married. And this continued for 20 years. With his relatives, with strangers — he could yell at me, beat me to the blood, and then say as if nothing had happened: «Aurelia, make me some tea.»" Dunduk also testified that Khachaturian bullied their son Sergey, beat him severely for "educational purposes", and after the boy graduated from the eighth grade, the father kicked him out of the house. After some time, Khachaturian drove Aurelia out of the house and forbade her to meet her daughters under threat of murder.
Friends and acquaintances noted Michail’s piety and superstitions, and strict rules that he established for the family. Khachaturyan’s mother, sister, and nephew lived with the rest of the family. They shared the father’s patriarchal and misogynistic views and argued that Aurelia should suffer beatings. According to Dunduk, Khachaturian became addicted to sleeping pills, which, among other things, caused a dramatic change in his mood. Neighbors, teachers, daughters' friends, and their parents confirmed that Khachaturian often behaved violently toward his family.
As the defendants and witnesses testified, Mikhail Khachaturyan began to harass the daughters shortly after breaking up with his wife. One of the sisters attempted suicide after being forced to perform unacceptable demand[clarification needed] but was resuscitated by doctors. During the investigation, the sisters claimed that the father forced them against will. Angelina’s friends and relatives also testified about more than ten cases of sexual violence against her known to them. A medical examination confirmed that the girls had injuries due to sexual abuse. In 2018, Khachaturian practically ceased to let the young women out of the house. Danduk claims that her daughters did not tell her about the ongoing situation in the family, so as not to upset her.
In one of the interviews, Christina told about the order their father established at home:
He demanded that we always be there and come at his first call. He had a special bell, which he rang, and one of us should immediately run up to him, day and night. And do whatever he says — to bring water, food and miscellaneous other… He could not make an effort even to open the window himself, and we had to serve him as slaves.
Maria and Angelina went to the same grade but in recent years, they were almost never allowed go to school as their father forced them to look after him. Sisters reported that they were constantly bullied and threatened with weapons. Apart from the school psychologist who tried to talk to the girls about their family situation, neighbors and school teachers preferred not to interfere and did not provide any significant support. Moreover, some relatives and friends of Mikhail Khachaturian defended him and asserted that accusations of sexual abuse and domestic violence were simply provocations. For example, the girls’ cousin, Arsen Khachaturian opined that they lied about beatings to slander their father.
On 30 July 2018, a remand court hearing was held in the Ostankino court of Moscow for the arrested girls. The judge extended the jail term for another 72 hours. A spokesman for the court reported that during the proceedings, the investigators upgraded the charges from simple murder to Article 105.2 (g) murder of the Russian Criminal Code, which made the expected punishment more severe. In early August, the investigation conducted an examination of the murder weapons and interrogated relatives and friends of the accused. Moreover, the investigators received copies of videos from surveillance cameras in the Khachaturian’s house and conducted an investigative experiment at the crime scene. The prosecutors came to the conclusion that the girls took concerted actions, and the younger sister Maria stabbed father at least 35 times.
Lawyers Aleksei Liptser, Aleksei Parshin and Yaroslav Pakulin continued to insist on the defendants’ innocence and argued that the young women tried to prevent the violence and acted defensively:
the girls lived in an environment of the constant threat for their own lives and the lives of their sisters. Being practically isolated from the outside world, they were convinced that it was impossible to get outside help and this made the situation hopeless. Their actions were aimed at stopping the inevitable violence that was committed against them.”
On 31 July, representatives of the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission visited the sisters in a pre-trial detention facility (the SIZO). There, the girls reported violations of their legal rights by police following the arrest; for example, the accused were not explained their rights and gave their first testimony without lawyers.
On 2 August, the Ostankino Court of Moscow extended the pre-trial custody by another two months. Four days later, the central office of the Investigative Committee took up the case. The Russian Commissioner for Human Rights, Tatyana Moskalkova, considered the court decision to be excessive, while the defense filed an appeal. In the SIZO, the defendants got the opportunity to study and meet a psychologist. In early September, after a mental health examination, the younger sister was recognized as unaware of her actions and transferred to the psychiatric ward of Butyrka prison. Although the other two sisters were found to be sane, the experts diagnosed them with the battered woman syndrome and posttraumatic stress disorder.
In mid-August, the investigation recognised Khachaturian’s «immoral actions» towards his daughters and confirmed the fact of psychological and sexual abuse. Although the court first rejected the petition on house arrest, at the end of September, the youngest and middle sisters were released from the detention centre. For three months, they were prohibited to perform certain activities such as using the Internet, as well as communicating with some relatives and the media.
The sisters’ uncle, Genadik Musaelya, was recognised as a victim at the trial. Together with his wife Naira Khachaturian, who is also Mikhail’s sister, Musaelya has filed a complaint against the girls’ release from the detention centre. Despite the fact that the defendants themselves abandoned their father’s inheritance, some relatives, speaking in the media, accused them of mercenary motives. Furthermore, their grandmother cancelled Krestina's registration in the apartment.
On 14 June 2019, investigators charged sisters with "a murder committed by a group of people following a premeditated conspiracy", which implies a term of imprisonment of 8 to 20 years. Prosecutors have designated the «unlawful acts of violence by the father» as the motive for the murder. In response to this, the lawyers directed complaints to the Chairman of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin. The defense insists that the investigation should recognize self-defense as the main motive for urging girls to the crime. The investigators also asked for a one-month extension of the ban on certain acts for the sisters. On 26 June, the petition was granted, so the prohibition will be extended until 28 July.
The court case of the Khachaturian sisters provoked a strong public reaction and was repeatedly discussed on state TV channels. In Moscow, St. Petersburg and other large cities, protests and single pickets against the sentence were held. Supporters of the Khachaturian sisters launched a petition asking the Investigation Committee to stop criminal proceedings. By June 2019, more than 115 thousand people signed the petition.
On July 6, instead of the unauthorized (instead of Academician Sakharov Avenue, the mayor's office suggested holding a march in Lyublino) on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow, a series of pickets in support of the girls took place. The sculpture "Children - Victims of Adult Vices" was also approached by activists of the Male State, who considered the sisters to be cold-blooded killers (the "March of the Sisters" did not pass, among other things, because, according to the organizers, they received threats from supporters of the "Male State" and the nephew of the deceased - Arsen Khachaturian). Four people were detained, three of them were Male State members. The organizers tried to agree on a march on Sakharov Avenue on July 27, but were refused (Maryino was proposed as an alternative site).
The girls were supported by many public figures: American singer Serj Tankian, writer Narine Abgarian, journalists Ksenia Sobchak and Yury Dud, musician Basta, singer Anna Sedokova, as well as by NGOs Кризисный центр для женщин and Насилию.нет and others.
The public outcry was due to its significance for the current Russian judicial system. According to Elena Solovyova, the head of the advocates association Sodeistvie, the case of Khachaturian sisters can contribute to the reconsideration of the concept of «necessary self-defense» and expand its legal application. In the media and social networks, users actively discussed the ethical side of the court case and the problem of the silence of diasporas. Nevertheless, many criticize the behavior of the sisters based on their «happy» look in the photos in social networks.
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