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“Honour killings” in Russia’s North Caucasus

When women in the North Caucasus are murdered by their families for “immoral behaviour”, justice is rarely done.  

Illustration: (c) Maria Tolstova / MediaZona.

We translate this article with permission from MediaZona, a media platform that focuses on Russia’s judicial and prison system. Find the original here.

“You can’t say that Sultan Daurbekov ended his daughter’s life, that he killed her.” This is how Ilyas Timishev began his defence of his client. “What you have to say is that he took her away from life, so that she couldn’t bring shame to herself, her father and her entire family. That’s the correct description.” Timishev’s client, Sultan Daurbekov, a resident of Chechnya, was on trial for the murder of his daughter, Zarema. In April 2015, this “honour killing” case, held in Grozny’s Staropromyslov District Court, was drawing to a close, and the public prosecutor had already requested an eight year sentence in a high security prison colony.

According to witnesses, Zarema Daurbekova “led an immoral life”. Reflecting on whether Zarema’s father deserved to be punished for killing her, Timishev remarked that the man was being judged under laws which belonged in a different cultural tradition.

“Our lawmakers are, in general, members of the Russian-speaking population. They will find this father’s actions unacceptable. Why is this?’ asked the defending counsel before immediately answering his own question: “Because they don’t have any traditions.”

 “A father who killed his child after enduring 20 years of humiliation from her, the amoral behaviour of a Muslim daughter, cannot, in principle, face responsibility for murder”

Indeed, as Timishev claimed, the Daurbekov case involved not only legal issues, but ethical and cultural ones as well, and these needed to be properly resolved, “taking into account the mindset and traditions of the Chechen people.” Despite the annoyance of the judge, who tried to return Timishev to the facts of the case, the defence counsel continued to describe in great detail Chechen traditions and the differences between Muslim and Christian “cultural codes”.

“On the one hand, we have the Criminal Code. On the other, traditions, good ones. The honour and dignity of women,” Timishev continued. “This is why I believe, Your Honour, that we need to find a fair balance between the interests of the state, the penal system, law enforcement and the interests of the defendant.” Timishev insisted that Daurbekov killed his daughter in a state of “intense spiritual conflict”, and so his actions couldn’t be classed as murder. “A father who killed his child after enduring 20 years of humiliation from her, the amoral behaviour of a Muslim daughter, cannot, in principle, face responsibility for murder.”

“I don’t remember where the rope came from”

On the evening of 24 November 2013, Zarema Daurbekova, a resident of Grozny, was returning home from work. She and her husband had recently divorced, she had found herself a job in a hairdressing salon and she and her 10 year old son were living with her parents. But that evening, Zarema decided to visit her sister, who lived nearby, and spend the night there. When she got off the bus, she phoned her mother to say that she was on her way from the bus stop, but she never arrived at her sister’s home and didn’t phone again. Her family called the police, thinking she might have been abducted.

Nothing further was heard of Zarema Daurbekova for almost a year, and then, in September 2014, her father turned up at a police station and confessed to her murder. On the day she disappeared, Sultan Daurbekov had been waiting for her at the bus stop where she alighted and asked her to get into his car, to talk. He drove her off into some wasteland, where he stopped and started accusing his daughter of “indecent behaviour”. A row broke out between them. At a certain point Daurbekov grabbed a length of rope, wrapped it round his daughter’s neck and pulled it and held it tight until she died. Then he hid her body in a hole dug in the wasteland and covered it with rubbish.

“There are no reliable statistics on killings of women whose families believe they have brought shame on them”

The witnesses called by Timishev — the Daurbekovs’ neighbours and relatives — discussed Zarema’s private life in every detail. They said that the divorced woman drank alcohol, wore her hair uncovered and got into strangers’ cars. Her mother got her share of criticism as well: according to the neighbours, she covered up for her daughter. In court, Nina Daurbekova did indeed deny that Zarema behaved “immorally” and asked people not to shame the deceased. At the same time, however, she said that he didn’t want her husband sent to prison.

“I just wanted to frighten her,” said Sultan Daurbekov in court. “But the way she was threatening me, I lost control and blanked out. I don’t remember where the rope came from and how I slung it round her neck. I was sitting in the back of the car. I don’t even remember how long it took to kill her. She held up her hand and I thought she had the rope in it, so that’s why I held it so tight. It was only when she fell that I realised I’d killed her. I’d never done anything bad to anyone, never said a cross word to my children. I don’t know how it happened… I’m ready to take my punishment.”

“She threatened her father with her boyfriends. She said: ‘If you touch him, you’ll disappear’,” Timishev told us. “They all deserved that, but you couldn’t punish them all. After all, she was partying and Sultan couldn’t go after them all with an axe. A lot of them were cops anyway. We questioned them in court, but they wouldn’t talk. None of them admitted [to being close to the deceased]. They said they were just friends. They’d go to her salon to have their hair cut.” The counsel for the defence believes that a Caucasian man who kills a female family member for her “licentious” way of life cannot be, in principle, tried for deliberate murder.

We were told by Timishev that the prosecuting counsels and judges, as Chechens themselves, understood and sympathised with Daurbekov, and that the two detectives who led the investigation admitted privately that they would have done the same thing in the defendant’s place. Talking to us, the defence counsel echoed the thought he had expressed in court: “If it were up to me, there would be no penalty imposed, but as we live in a constitutional state where the laws are made not by Muslim, but by Russian lawmakers who find our customs alien, then we need to find an appropriate charge to try him on.”

Illustration: (c) Maria Tolstova / MediaZona.In April 2015, Daurbekov was sentenced to seven years in a high security prison for murder. His counsel argued that at the moment of the crime he was “in the heat of passion”, aroused in him by the “indecent behaviour” of his daughter and the threats she made, but expert witnesses did not accept this as a defence.

Daurbekov’s lawyer is not satisfied with the sentence. After all, Timishev believes that Zarema’s father was “forced” to commit the crime. “They didn’t regard him as a proper man any more. They didn’t criticise him directly, but when he came to a funeral, for example, they would say: ‘Sultan, go back home, we don’t need you here,’” says Timishev. “He felt like an outcast. Murder is a tragedy, of course, but everybody will know that it wasn’t a fair conviction. Or should he have just got used to everyone laughing at the very sight of him and passing him by without a word? Now, nobody thinks he’s a hero. It’s a normal thing to happen. He killed his daughter. He did the right thing and that’s it. But nobody will laugh at him any more.”

“He did what I should have done”

In May 2015, Abdulaziz Abdurakhmanov, from the village of Chirkey in Dagestan’s Buinaksk district was tried for the same offence as Sultan Daurbakov: he killed his cousin Asiyat for “immoral behaviour”.

In court, Abdurakhmanov told the judge that he had seen on the internet a video “of an intimate nature” involving his cousin and an unknown man. What exactly it showed is unknown, but after watching it he went to his cousin’s house and demanded to hear who the man on the video was and who was the father of Asiyat’s second child, born just two weeks earlier. According to his testimony, his cousin refused to explain anything and just said that the video showed her with the man she loved and nobody had the right to poke their nose into her private life.

The cousins got into an argument, with Abdurakhmanov screaming that Asiyat had brought shame on the whole family and her telling him to get out of her house. Then, according to Abdurakhmanov, she grabbed a kitchen knife and went for him, but he managed to snatch the knife out of her hand and stabbed Asiyat in her side. In court, Abdurakhmanov repeatedly stated that when he left, she was still alive. He then told his family about what had happened and turned himself in to the police, still unaware that his cousin was dead. Doctors found nine stab wounds on her body. Like Daurbekov, Abdurakhmanov claimed that he had killed his cousin “in the heat of passion”.

“Honour killings” don’t happen spontaneously — these crimes are planned by members of the women’s families in advance

Zulfiya Isakadzhiyeva, the lawyer who defended Abdurakhmanov in court, hoped to have the charge reduced from murder to manslaughter. The client, Isakadzhiyeva said, had no intention of killing his cousin and couldn’t even remember the details of what happened. At his trial, Abdurakhmanov repented of his actions, asked his victim’s mother to pardon him and promised to support her children, and the families of Abdulaziz and Asiyat (whose fathers were brothers), made peace with one another. The victim’s father supposedly even told his brother, “I have nothing against Abdulaziz: he did what I should have done.” And Asiyat’s mother asked the court not to send Abdurakhmanov to prison, supporting the defence’s appeal for a psychological-psychiatric examination of the defendant.

In conversation with Mediazona, Isakadzhiyeva said that the court tried to avoid any discussion of Asiyat’s private life. All that was known was that she was divorced from her husband. “Asiyat’s mother said that she had been married to her husband as a second wife,” the lawyer said. “Her mother thought that her two children had been born in that marriage, but her ex-husband told the court that he couldn’t be sure he was the father. And rumours were flying around the village. But family members didn’t openly approve of Abdurakhmanov’s action and many couldn’t believe him capable of such a thing. He himself made a partial confession, denying that he had meant to kill her. He couldn’t even remember stabbing her so many times, he said: he thought he had only knifed her twice.”

The forensic psychiatric examination, which took place in Astrakhan, didn’t corroborate Abdurakhmanov’s claimed state of mind at the time of the killing. The court found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to six years in a high security prison colony.

The Shariatisation of violence

“Honour killings” don’t happen spontaneously — these crimes are planned by members of the women’s families in advance, says Svetlana Anokhina, editor-in-chief of Daptar.ru, a website devoted to women’s rights in Dagestan: “As a rule, the decision is taken by the family together and more than one person is involved in the actual murder.”

Anokhina also tells us that there is no correlation between “honour killings” and a family’s devoutness or lack of it: “It’s difficult to say why these ‘traditions’ arose, Dagestan is a very diverse society. I know a village where there are ‘swingers’ among the inhabitants. And next door you have a family where there have been four ‘honour killings’.”

“As a rule, the decision is taken by the family together and more than one person is involved in the actual murder”

It is often members of the extended family — uncles, cousins — who initiate the murder of a young woman for unacceptable behaviour. In the winter of 2010, for example, police officers arrested Tarkhan Ozdoyev, a resident of Ingushetia, whom they suspected of killing his cousin and her two daughters. The bodies of Madina Ozdoyeva, 42, Zarema Ozdoyeva, 20, and Fatima Ozdoyeva, 18, were found by passers-by on the outskirts of the village of Ali-Yurt. Their corpses, which had been dumped in the woods, had been practically beheaded and were covered in bruises and abrasions — before being killed they had been badly beaten.

Ozdoyev admitted to murdering his relatives: they had, in his opinion, behaved in an immoral fashion — walking along the street with their faces uncovered, smiling and talking freely with other villagers. He was convicted of multiple murders and sentenced to 12 years in a high security prison colony.

Illustration: (c) Maria Tolstova / MediaZona.“Fathers often take pity on their children. That’s only natural. But less close relatives can raise the subject and go around spreading the word. And in the end the woman gets killed,” says Svetlana Anokhina. “Male relatives can theoretically intercede for a women accused of ‘immoral behaviour’: in that case, several men have to agree to stand surety for her in front of other family members. But I’ve never actually heard of men trying to save a woman in this way.”

“Honour killings” are often a front for banal, mercenary aims — there is a well-known case where a brother murdered his sister for an inheritance, but excused his crime by claiming that she had an immoral lifestyle. And these killings are also useful for covering up the traces of incest, for example, says Anokhina: “So each of these crimes have to be studied closely, to uncover the real reasons behind them.”

The concept of family honour occupies a special place in the general value system of the peoples of the Caucasus. As Naima Neflyasheva, a specialist in Caucasus history at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ African Studies Institute explains, the behaviour and reputations of girls and women was always of importance to the whole family. “Under local customary law, a married woman who slept with another man could face corporal punishment — 19th century oral sources talk about 100 strokes of the birch; or she could have the tip of her nose cut off and be sent in shame back to her father’s house with her hair loose or cut short,” Neflyasheva says. “Some written sources mention that an unfaithful wife may be killed. But ethnographers’ field studies suggest that both physical punishments and killing were rare occurrences.”

“I’ve heard of young women being expelled from their village, but I don’t know of any cases of their being whipped in today’s Caucasus”

According to Neflyasheva, a bride whose husband discovered she was not a virgin would be returned by his family to her father’s house on a cart with her back turned towards the horse. And if a young woman who was not yet betrothed was found to be “impure” she was usually despatched to relatives in another village, to be married as soon as possible to an elderly widower or the “village idiot”.

“However, these customs had generally died out by the 1930s-1950s”, says Neflyasheva. “And as for the Shariat penalty for premarital sexual relations, that is ideally decided by a Shariat court — a qadi and imams — not by the young woman’s family.” Shariat Law makes a distinction between licentiousness and premarital and adulterous sexual relations – for unmarried women the punishment is a certain number of lashes with a whip and expulsion, as far away as possible, from the village.

“I’ve heard of young women being expelled from their village,” says Neflyasheva, “but I don’t know of any cases of their being whipped in today’s Caucasus. Islam condemns the taking of someone’s life. I feel that the so-called ‘honour killings’ that have taken place in the last few years in the Eastern Caucasus (I want to stress that this practice is region specific) should be regarded as the shariatisation of violence, where everyday violence becomes identified with Sharia Law and is seen as such by the people who commit these crimes.”

“In the majority of cases, it isn’t registered as murder”

Of course, by no means all divorced women are persecuted by their families, Svetlana Anokhina tells us. Nonetheless, some realise that their relatives won’t let them live a quiet life in Dagestan and try to leave the republic. This was the case with Maryam Magomedova, from the village of Nechayevka in the Kizilyurt District, who was forced to move to Moscow with her mother and sister because of continual rows with relatives. Then in August 2010 she was invited to a wedding back in Dagestan and agreed to go.

“When she arrived in the village, Kasum Magomedov, her uncle on her father’s side, summoned her for a chat,” says Salimat Kadyrova, who represented the interests of the dead woman’s mother in court. “At his trial, he said that he had long wanted to talk to her, as he had heard that she and her husband had split up after she was unfaithful to him. Magomedov was also annoyed that her hair was uncovered. He drove her off to the edge of the village to talk to her. She told him to stay out of her life, and he lost his rag. He claimed that he had blanked out and when he came to his senses she was already strangled to death.”

Magomedov buried his niece in the village cemetery himself. When a search for her began Murtazali Abdulmuslimov, her uncle on her mother’s side, discovered that she had been last seen getting into a car with Magomedov and his nephew. After talking to them he suspected foul play, and later noticed a fresh grave in the cemetery and took Magomedov to task again. The same evening, members of Magomedov’s family called for Abdulmuslimov and asked him to go with them to visit Kasum, their oldest brother. There he was told that Kasum had wiped out the stain of shame they bore for Maryam’s unseemly behaviour and proposed that the whole thing be hushed up and Maryam re-buried with all proper funeral rites. Abdulmuslimov, however, didn’t agree and the victim’s mother, Kusum Magomedova, also refused to be reconciled with the family of her daughter’s killer.

“In ‘honour killing’ cases, once the defendant’s guilt is established, he will be convicted, but there remains the question of the length of his sentence” 

“Although Kasum’s relatives also condemned his actions, at his trial they still tried to stick up for him and wouldn’t admit that he had met up with Abdulmuslimov and confessed his guilt,” Kadyrova recalls. During Magomedov’s first trial, the defendant denied his guilt. In April 2013, the Kizilyurt District Court acquitted Magomedov and released him from custody in the courtroom. However, his victim’s mother appealed against the verdict and Dagestan’s High Court overturned it.

“Maryam’s mother said that if it had been a real ‘honour killing’, she might have let it go, but she was sure that her daughter was being slandered,” says Kadyrova. “And indeed, witnesses testified that Maryam was a modest young woman.” In the autumn of 2013, the case was reopened, and in spring 2014 Kasum Magomedov made a partial confession, but claimed he killed his victim “in the heat of passion”. An expert examination concluded that the defendant was of sound mind and he was sentenced to seven years in a high security prison colony.

Two women walk through an underpass in the Grozny-City shopping centre, Grozny, Republic of Chechnya, 2012. Photo (c): Ramil Sitdikov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

“In ‘honour killing’ cases, once the defendant’s guilt is established, he will be convicted, but there remains the question of the length of his sentence,” the lawyer tells us. “I think the sentences are sometimes too short, but most killings like this manage to be passed off as suicides or accidents. Or the whole thing is hushed up: a young woman disappears and no one will ever know that she was murdered. And even if they know, even their mothers rarely tell. If [the young woman’s “improper” behaviour] is confirmed, her mother has to share the blame — she didn’t bring her up right — so she has to keep silent and hold it all in. But these men are supported by society, sympathised with and their crimes absolved. They’re seen as something like orderlies, cleaning up mess.”

In 2015 Marem Alieyeva, a resident of Ingushetia, also tried to escape from a husband who beat her, but gave in to her family’s persuasion and returned to the republic. Two weeks later, some relatives of her husband Mukharbek Evloyev gathered at their home. Marem could see on the CCTV screen that they were having a discussion about something, and told her sister, just in case. Alieyeva disappeared the same day and has never been seen since, alive or dead.

“The only people they try hard to find are potential suicide bombers,” says Daptar.ru’s Svetlana Anokhina. “But for a search to begin, someone has to report a missing person, and this doesn’t always happen. And the police themselves are very unwilling to open cases of disappearance, so it collapses at the first hurdle. The cops just don’t look for women who have disappeared. They tell the families that the young woman probably just decided to run away. And here it’s a question of: ‘no body: no case’.”

“Why do the dead women’s mothers so frequently keep silent about it? Because they don’t want to get their other children into trouble”

“Sometimes cases are opened because they find a body,” says defence lawyer Timishev. “Although then you can say: ‘They deserved all they got’. Seven or eight women have been found in various parts of Chechnya with bullet holes in their heads, killed five to seven years ago. But they were all ‘tramps’.” The lawyer was evidently referring to the case in November 2008 where six women were killed at the same time, in various districts, by shots to the head. Nothing was stolen from them — neither jewellery, nor cash — so the investigators came up with the idea of “honour killings”. Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov said at the time that they were women of easy virtue who had been punished by their families. As Kadyrov said, “In our culture, if a woman lives like that, if she sleeps with a man, her family kills both of them.” He also admitted, however, that the killings couldn’t be justified by any appeal to tradition.

“Why do the dead women’s mothers so frequently keep silent about it? Because they don’t want to get their other children into trouble,” says Svetlana Anokhina. Also, the murder of a supposedly morally compromised daughter gives her family greater authority in their community. “It means that this family is pretty influential, and has a concept of honour and connections that might protect it from criminal charges. A family like this is afraid of nothing.”

“There are no reliable statistics on killings of women whose families believe they have brought shame on them,” concludes Olga Gnezdilova, a lawyer working for the Netherlands-based Justice Initiative Foundation. “In most cases their deaths are not even registered as murders. The young women are just buried, either with a proper funeral or just in a hole somewhere. The neighbours, of course know about it, but don’t report it, of course.”

Translated by Liz Barnes. 


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