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‘The Chechen mentality’

Domestic violence is all too common in Chechnya. It is very rare for women to stand up for their rights, by recourse to the law. This is the story of one woman, Shoma Timagov, who did.

It is widely believed in Chechnya that violence against women at the hands of their husbands has dramatically increased in recent decades. Thinking back to our youth during the late Soviet period, there seems to have been more respect for women. Back then, people used to say that a man who raises his hand against a woman is no man at all. If there was constant conflict in the family, the view was that it was better to get a divorce than to strike your wife. 

Violence against women happens right across our society, including to educated, well-off women. A woman prosecutor of my acquaintance confided in me that her husband beats her.

So why has violence against women increased? Maybe because men feel powerless, now that women have the choice of leading public lives, making their own living. One thing is for sure: domestic violence is especially common in families where there is polygamy. Nor is it just the jilted, older first wife who becomes a victim. It can happen to the prized, new second wife as well. I remember one case in which even the children of the two wives could not get along, so entrenched was conflict in that family.

The appearance of a second wife

The story that follows was provoked by the appearance of a second wife. It is quite typical; even the extreme brutality of the assault is not all that exceptional. What makes it unique is that the victim turned to the courts for justice.

'During 30 years of marriage, Shoma and ElaTimagov raised two sons and a daughter. Then came the day when Ela told his family that they would all have to leave, as he was bringing a new wife home.'

During 30 years of marriage, Shoma and ElaTimagov raised two sons and a daughter. Then came the day when Ela told his family that they would all have to leave, as he was bringing a new wife home. When they dared to protest, he flew into a rage: “I don’t want you living in my house. I’m going to have a new family, a new wife”. He beat up his sons, threw them out into the street and hit his wife with a shovel.

Shoma refused to be hospitalised, though it took her four months to recover at home. Like a dutiful wife, she hoped that by hushing it up she could keep the family together. She was also afraid that her brothers might create a scandal, since according to Chechen custom, blood relatives are obliged to seek revenge against the offender.

The Timagovs’ house was large, with easily enough space for three or four families. Shoma pleaded with her husband to allow her to live in the house with their children, even if he insisted on bringing home a new wife. But Ela didn’t like that idea and kept on beating his wife and children.

Charges against husband

What happened next was quite unheard of in Chechen society, where women do not usually own property, on their own or jointly with their husbands. Indeed, in Chechnya there is a saying that “a woman leaves her husband’s house with nothing but what she brought there as a bride”. That is to say with only clothes on her back. However, Shoma came to me for legal advice. I persuaded her to press charges against her husband, to get a divorce and sue for half of the property. The court convicted Ela of violence against his wife. He was ordered to pay a fine of 15,000 rubles (some $500) and to split the property between the spouses.

This move only made Ela angrier, and more violent. One evening, for no apparent reason, he hit Shoma over the head with an axe. Covered in blood, her hand smashed, she was taken to the local hospital. We arranged for her to be flown to St. Petersburg for specialist surgery, or she would have died. In pain, threatened with the onset of epilepsy, Shoma was left permanently disabled, unable to look after herself. She was also obliged to give up her beloved teaching job.

Even then, nobody laid a finger on ElaTimagov. It was the woman’s own fault, they all said. Only after he stabbed his younger son Islam in the head was he finally arrested and charged with attempted murder. He faced a ten year prison term.

'The court convicted Ela of violence against his wife. He was ordered to pay a fine of 15,000 rubles (some $500) and to split the property between the spouses.' 

Two months after his arrest Timagov started campaigning to clear his name. All of a sudden, he began claiming that he was innocent. He claimed he’d come home and found his wife covered in blood by the toilet. He kept repeating that phrase like a mantra. He had come up with an excuse for stabbing his son, too. He swore that he had punished the boy because he wanted to join the militant underground. He kept pointing out how he had gone on the Hadj three times. Presumably, this was intended to show what a good man he was, though it’s hard to imagine how a decent, pious man would be capable of behaving so monstrously to his own family.

There still seemed no way that he could avoid prison. His psychological evaluation showed that he had been healthy and sane at the time of his crime. Then suddenly, this hum-drum case took a surprising turn. 

A new defence team

A new defence lawyer was brought in from Moscow. Zaur Tashtamirov found new witnesses who were prepared to swear that it was all the woman’s fault; that she had insulted her husband and driven him over the edge. “You’re our slave, we’ll make sure you rot in this house of yours. Your new wife’s a prostitute. We will outlive you.” Shoma would yell things like this at her husband, according to the witnesses. None of them had actually seen her do this, of course. They’d only heard voices.

This new lawyer argued that Timagov, maddened, had grabbed the axe in a moment of “affect”. This legal concept describes a state of temporary emotional upheaval that results in much lighter punishment.  He managed to book his client a fresh psychological evaluation.

At this point yet another Moscow lawyer joined the defence team. Alaudi Musaev is a prominent, successful lawyer. He and his son Murad, also a famous lawyer (he takes on attention-grabbing cases, among them the trial of the alleged killers of Anna Politkovskaya), enjoy celebrity status in Chechnya. With Musaev senior aboard, things started to change dramatically. The second psychological evaluation was conducted in the presence of the accused’s lawyers, but I, as the victim’s representative, was not admitted.  It took all of 15 minutes.

The judge explained to me that Musaev had taken over and that he couldn’t ignore that fact. From that moment on, the defence’s argument centered on this so-called ‘Chechen mentality’, which supposedly had to be taken into account when the accused was a Chechen man.

‘One evening, for no apparent reason, he hit Shoma over the head with an axe. Covered in blood, her hand smashed, she was taken to the local hospital.’

The trial, which took place in Chechnya, proceeded with a catalogue of brazen violations. Previous decisions of the court were annulled; motions by me and my colleagues were thrown out; documents were backdated, in the absence of the signatories. For example, on the day of the psychiatric evaluation, the chairman of the commission, who supposedly signed the conclusion, was actually on vacation. That dubious document declared that Timagov was acting in the condition of ‘affect’ when wielding that axe. The court denied a request for an independent evaluation in a neighbouring republic.

Court sessions would take place on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, right after prayers.The mosque is located next to the court building, and after prayers, some forty men would all come to the court together. The court would be packed out with Timagov’s friends, who would express their support for him noisily. I started feeling this was a sharia court, where Russian law wasn’t in force. Timagov’s supporters would walk up to us, the victim’s legal team, and threaten us. They told us they would plant stories in the local media, stories that might be dangerous for us, that would attract the attention of the republic’s leadership. They said they were going to take legal action against Shoma’s entire legal team, that they would petition to me removed from the St. Petersburg bar (where I also practice law).

The victim’s side had no supporters in the courtroom. We had actually advised against this, in order to prevent physical altercations between the two sides in the court room. Faced with Timagov’s swaggering crowd, we felt intimidated. During recess, Timagov’s supporters would discuss the case loudly. “Why would this woman insist on staying on in her ex-husband’s house?” they would say. “She got what she deserved. He did the right thing.” We would respond that our client was only claiming her entitlement under the law. Even under Chechen customary law or adat, we would argue, she was entitled to live in her ex-husband’s house, since her grown-up sons had the right to house their mother.

Some of these supporters were always present. Some only came sometimes. Some were there as a favour, because of personal relationships. Some came out of interest, and some because they had been asked to, probably by family. During court proceedings, when it was our turn to speak, some of Timagov’s supporters would mutter incantations in hostile whispers.  We had the strong impression that these were curses directed at us, intended to provoke us into getting confused and losing our train of thought.

Now, I don’t necessarily believe in curses and things like that. But when you sit down after making your statement, you get paranoid, stressed out. You remember something important you forgot to say. You start thinking that you weren’t eloquent enough, that they’d managed to distract you. We started taking pills during the trial, to stay calm.

‘I started feeling this was a sharia court, where Russian law wasn’t in force. Timagov’s supporters would walk up to us, the victim’s legal team, and threaten us.’

The Moscow celebrity lawyer Musaev ran the trial. It was as if the judge and prosecutor were not there at all. As if there was no criminal code for Chechens, no kind of law, nothing but the ‘Chechen mentality’. Those Russian laws, they don’t apply to our women. They’re convinced a woman is a cow, subject to her husband’s will, a slave who has no right to raise her voice against her husband. In their view, Shoma had been rightly punished for standing up to her husband.

The accused’s lawyers, rather than talking about the case, kept making personal attacks on me. Right there in the court, they threatened me, said they’d finish me, that they’d find me wherever I went, even in St. Petersburg.

Despairing of ever getting a fair hearing and fed up with all the talk about the ‘Chechen mentality’, I declared in court that I did not want to start believing the infamous verdict General Yermolov had passed on the Chechens in the course of  Russia’s expansionary campaigns in the North Caucasus the 19thcentury : ‘You cannot subdue them, but you can buy them off. There is no people under the sun more vile and devious than the Chechens’.  That was my response to that ‘Chechen mentality’ defense. After that they accused me of insulting the entire Chechen nation and wanted to bring me, a Chechen woman, to justice for it.

The lawyers for the defendant and the judge kept hinting that Ramzan Kadyrov and Adam Delimkhanov had ordered that this trial be brought to an end fast. [ed: Adam Delimkhanov is a close advisor to Kadyrov and since 2011 a deputy in the federal Duma]. And that was supposedly why the Chairman of Chechnya’s Supreme Court got scared and intervened in the trial. Of course I personally never believe that Kadyrov and Delimkhanov were involved. But how could people hint at the involvement of such high-ranking officials?

Supreme Court of Chechnya

Ela Timagov’s crime was duly downgraded from “attempted murder” to the much less serious charge of “inflicting an injury of medium seriousness while in a condition of insanity”. On October 7, 2011, the court sentenced him to nine months and three days in prison. By a strange coincidence, this was exactly the period he had spent under arrest. So right there in the courtroom they took his handcuffs off and he walked out a free man. “I am speechless,” Timagov declared. “Everything depends on Allah’s will.”

Since Ela was freed, Shoma, her two sons and their wives have lived in hiding in a rented apartment in Grozny. “Ela didn’t even allow us to collect our things from our own home”, they report. “He simply burned everything.”

But that is not quite the end of the story. Ela did get off lightly. But he did not altogether escape justice. The fact that there had been a long trial, and a conviction was significant. His supporters registered it. After it was all over we could hear them outside the court, joking to one another: “Boys, we need to watch out. This place is turning into Europe. You can’t just beat your wife and get away with it any more!”

'Ela did get off lightly. But he did not altogether escape justice. The fact that there had been a long trial, and a conviction was significant.' 

Based on the many procedural violations, we appealed against the conviction, to the Supreme Court of Chechnya. Hardly surprisingly, this court upheld the earlier ruling. But there were small victories on the way. During the session, ElaTimagov’s star attorney Musaev put all the blame for the violent attack on Shoma on her lawyers, “who had advised her to claim her half of the property and stay in her ex-husband’s house after the divorce”. The judge ordered him to be silent. The Supreme Court also revoked as illegal the formal reprimand against me, issued by the first court for the supposed ethical violation of citing Yermolov’s notorious judgment.

What’s more, that second ruling by Chechnya’s Supreme Court also means that Shoma has “exhausted domestic remedies”. This means that she can now apply to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. We have already started that process. 


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