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How the Internet Both Facilitates and Challenges Rape in Russia

"Silence about rape means it will continue." Image from Russian online community against rape. VKontakte.

“Silence about rape means it will continue.” Image from Russian online community against rape. VKontakte.

Official figures say a fifth of women in Russia have experienced domestic violence. If you include cases of verbal abuse, the figure jumps to 40 percent. Only 12 percent of women, however, ever turn to the police for help. As if these numbers aren’t disturbing enough, the explosion of online social networks in Russia makes it easier than ever for sexual predators to contact and track down women.

But the Internet also presents women with new weapons against their attackers that can challenge a legal system stacked against them.

This is the story of one such case, reported by the Russian news network TV Rain, about a 24-year-old woman in Moscow who says she was raped by a man she met online. The Internet has also played a crucial role in her efforts to get justice.

Yulia says she got acquainted with her attacker on the Internet, and they agreed to meet for coffee at her apartment. When they spoke beforehand on the phone, the man was apparently courteous and kind. Their date started off well enough; he introduced himself as a police officer (a member of the SWAT, no less), even proving it to Yulia by showing her his badge and passport. They chatted for a few hours and watched a movie. The man even fell asleep during the film.

When Yulia woke him up, he raped her. This was on April 21, she says.

Yulia didn’t go to the police immediately. Later that night, after her attacker had gone home, she called him on the phone and demanded an explanation. He responded calmly, she says, telling her it wasn’t a “big deal.” When Yulia said she would file a police report, the man told her she’d never prove his guilt.

The next morning, he showed up at Yulia’s doorstep, ostensibly to apologize. Yulia says he started yelling at her, instead. When she slapped him in the face to stop his screaming, he beat her up. Afterwards, a doctor at a first aid clinic would tell her that she suffered a concussion. (TV Rain says it has a copy of the doctor’s diagnosis.)

After the fight, he called the police, claiming Yulia attacked him without provocation. Yulia called the police, too, but the same unit responded to both calls. The couple was brought into a local police station, where officers repeatedly reminded Yulia that false accusations are a crime punishable by as many as three years in prison. She filed a report, but says she soon saw her attacked walk out of the station with the document in hand. Witnessing this, Yulia abandoned her efforts and went home.

After consulting with a friend who worked in law enforcement, Yulia appealed to Russia’s Investigative Committee, where she was reminded again of the penalties for false accusations. After a delay of a few days, investigators questioned her and later came to her apartment to seize evidence. They promised to contact Yulia with an update by May 5.

Before May 5, Yulia’s attacker returned to her home several times. He apologized, she says, and begged her to drop the charges. When Yulia went to meet with her lawyer for the first time, her attacker was waiting outside her apartment that morning. He pressured her into letting him come with her to the meeting.

Yulia paid the attorney for the consultation and handed over the forensic-medical evidence for her case. The lawyer, who decided not to take Yulia as a client, later refused to return these documents. When her next lawyer failed to retrieve the paperwork, she threatened to press charges. Luckily, one of the investigators called, she was reissued her medical documents, and this problem was resolved.

On May 7, investigators called Yulia back for more questioning. It lasted nearly eight hours. Yulia’s second lawyer was unhappy with her decision to bring friends and supporters to the investigators’ office, saying publicity wouldn’t help her case. Yulia later said she thought it “strange” that her own legal representative feared publicity.

Yulia’s third and current lawyer is Mari Davtyan, an attorney at the Bar Association Moscow Legal Center and an expert on the Kremlin’s Social Commission of the Human Rights Council. For years, Davtyan has worked on domestic violence and campaigned against women’s discrimination on the labor market.

She says she learned about Yulia’s story the same place that it started: an online social network.

“In my experience,” Davtyan told TV Rain, “[the police] frighten everyone with penalties for false accusations—even those who are beaten in their own homes. But in my experience, nobody actually files these charges, and I’ve yet to meet a woman who was lying.” Davtyan says they should know by early June if investigators intend to open a case against Yulia’s attacker. Yulia says she intends to appeal, if police refuse to press on.

In a VKontakte post that’s been shared in several online communities dedicated to confronting violence against women, Yulia vows to keep fighting. Raising awareness about her story in online social networks, she argues, will engage the press and subject the authorities to a higher level of public scrutiny, hopefully pressuring police into charging the man who she says raped her.

Мой новый адвокат женщина посоветовала привлечь общественность так как при вмешательство СМИ дело не спустят на тормоза, а все виновные и те кто его покрывал наказаны. Поэтому я прошу вашей помощи любую которую вы можете мне оказать сообщить об этом вопиющем случае. Просто я устала бояться а моя личность уже всё равно растоптана. Спасибо. Если я привлеку общественность и людей то только тогда дело точно не развалят поэтому прошу вашей помощи. Спасибо.

My new lawyer is a woman who has advised attracting the public’s attention, insofar as police won’t be able to drop the case after the media gets involved, and those who are guilty and responsible for the coverup will be punished. So I’m asking for any help you can manage to tell others about this outrageous case. I’m simply tired of being afraid, and my own personal reputation is already destroyed. Thank you. If I can get my story to the public, only then will I stop them from tossing out my case. That’s why I’m asking for your help. Thank you.

TV Rain spoke on the phone to the man Yulia says raped her. Refusing to say where he works exactly, the man confirmed that he is employed by the police, and denied sexually assaulting Yulia, who he says is mentally ill. He says his supervisors are aware of the allegations against him, and he’s confident that he’ll be vindicated. He also promises to press charges against Yulia for what he says are false criminal accusations.

Though Yulia has said online that she seeks publicity for her case, RuNet Echo is declining to publish her surname, following TV Rain’s decision to withhold this information. Yulia did not respond to our requests for additional comment.

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