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Activists in Russia Push to Make Domestic Violence a Voting Issue

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Activists in Russia Push to Make Domestic Violence a Voting Issue


MOSCOW — Sitting in the cramped kitchen of her suburban Moscow headquarters, Alyona Popova pointed to the five-story brick complex next door and explained why domestic violence is at the center of her campaign for a seat in the Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament.

“In each entrance, we have a story of domestic violence,” she said. “Right there, we have two grandmothers who were just beaten by their relatives. In the one after that, we have a mother with three kids. She is beaten by her husband. And there, we have a mother who is beaten by her son.”

As she stumps across the 205th electoral district, a working class area on Moscow’s eastern fringe, Ms. Popova implores women to turn against Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, which has rolled back protections for women over the last several years. Leading up to this weekend’s election, she has presented the issue in urgent terms, and a proposal to make all acts of domestic violence subject to criminal penalties tops her campaign platform.

According to Ms. Popova’s analysis of data collected by Russia’s national statistics agency, there are more than 16.5 million victims of domestic violence every year. More than 12,200 women, or two thirds of those murdered in Russia between 2011 and 2019, were killed by their partners or relatives, according to one study.

“This is our reality; the only term we can use is ‘epidemic’,” said Ms. Popova, 38, a lawyer and activist who is running with the liberal Yabloko party, though she is not a member.

There is some evidence that many Russians agree with her. A 2020 poll conducted by the independent Levada Center found that almost 80 percent of respondents believe legislation to curb domestic violence is necessary. A petition initiated by Ms. Popova in support of such a law garnered almost one million signatures.

But will these supporters vote? And in authoritarian Russia, where election outcomes are effectively preordained, would it make a difference?

Even in a country where women make up 54 percent of the population, domestic violence remains largely absent as an animating issue for voters, taking a back seat to problems like corruption, rising consumer prices, the lack of economic opportunity and the coronavirus pandemic.

“For our voters, this problem is at 90th place,” said the deputy speaker of the Duma, Pyotr O. Tolstoy, who is seeking a second term with United Russia.

He mocked suggestions that women might abandon his party, which holds 336 of 450 seats in the Duma. Indeed, women are a core part of United Russia’s voter base. In part this is because they occupy the majority of public sector jobs in fields like teaching, medicine and administration, meaning their income often depends on the political system in power.

Irina Yugchenko, 43, also expressed skepticism about Ms. Popova’s focus on domestic violence as she exited a Metro station one evening recently. “Sure, of course there should be a law, but if it happens to women more than once, we have to ask why,” she said, voicing a common view in Russia. “If my friends dealt with this, they would not accept it.”

She said she was undecided about whom to vote for, and doubted that the election would bring any change, adding cynically “we are not voting for the first time.” A July 2021 survey found that only 22 percent of respondents planned to vote, which would be a 17-year low.

Over the past decade, Mr. Putin and his party have become increasingly conservative in their social policies. As Russia’s conflict with the West widened, the Kremlin started to bill itself as the stronghold of traditional family values. The state promoted patriarchal family structures and supported reactionary attitudes toward L.G.B.T.Q. Russians.

In 2016, the government labeled the Moscow-based Anna Center, which provides legal, material, and psychological assistance to women dealing with abuse, a “foreign agent.” The designation carries negative connotations and imposes onerous requirements. Last year, the government designated another group, Nasiliu.net (“No To Violence”), as a foreign agent.

Duma deputies voted 380-3 in 2017 to partially decriminalize domestic violence, reducing it to an administrative offense if it happens no more than once per year. Harm that results in bruises or bleeding but not broken bones is punishable by a fine as low as 5,000 rubles, or $68, slightly more than illegal parking. Only injuries like concussions and broken bones, or repeated offenses against a family member, lead to criminal charges. There is no legal instrument for police to issue restraining orders.

A draft of an anti-domestic violence law that was proposed in 2019 launched a debate in the Duma but it was ultimately amended so much that its early supporters, including Ms. Popova, were “horrified.” It was never put to a vote.

But in recent years, several dramatic cases have sparked outrage, making the issue more politically potent. In one famous case, Margarita Gracheva’s husband chopped off both of her hands with an ax in 2017, months after she began asking the police for protection. (He was later sentenced to 14 years in prison. She now co-hosts a show on state television about domestic violence.)

“Finally this issue got so much attention that it became a political issue,” said Marina Pisklakova-Parker, director of the Anna Center.

In April, Russia’s Constitutional Court ordered lawmakers to amend the criminal code to punish repeat domestic violence perpetrators, concluding that both protections for victims and punishments for offenders were insufficient. And advocacy groups have registered a spike in domestic violence connected to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Duma has not acted.

Many United Russia voters appreciate government vouchers given to mothers. The benefits were recently extended to women with only one child, as Moscow tries to raise the country’s declining birthrate.

But that is no substitute for elementary protection, said Oksana Pushkina, a popular television personality who entered the Duma with United Russia in 2016 and made fighting domestic violence one of her priorities.

“All these are support measures that are designed to leave a woman at home, and not create opportunities for her self-realization and economic independence,” she said. “In this way, the Russian authorities provide for the basic needs of Russian women, in return for their political loyalty. But such government spending is by no means a social investment.”

Ms. Pushkina, who championed the domestic violence law in the Duma, was not invited to run for a second term.

“Apparently, United Russia and the people in the presidential administration considered me too independent, and the pro-feminist agenda too dangerous,” she said.

Experts and survivors say much of the opposition to the 2019 draft law was uninformed, with many opponents wrongly asserting that if a restraining order were imposed, a man could lose his property, or that children could be removed from families.

“They are scared that the time of Stalin, when people informed on their neighbors, could return,” said Irina Petrakova, a human resources assistant who survived seven years of abuse by her ex-husband. She said she reported 23 incidents to the authorities on eight occasions, but that her husband has not spent a single day in jail.

She, Ms. Gracheva and two other women are suing Russia before the European Court of Human Rights for failing to protect them.

Ms. Petrakova, who also works as a life coach, said she supported Ms. Popova, whose district is adjacent to hers. But she shrugged when asked if United Russia’s refusal to combat domestic violence could pull women away from the party. Many of its voters, she said, had lived through the turbulent 1990s and prized stability.

She planned to vote, but said there were no worthy candidates in her district.

“If I could make check mark against everyone, I would,” she said.

Most of Russia’s opposition has been jailed, exiled, or prohibited from running in this weekend’s elections. At a small meeting with potential constituents in a park on Sunday, Ms. Popova, who is facing 10 other candidates, said she was committed to participating in elections, even uncompetitive ones, for as long as possible.

And she was optimistic about polls her team had commissioned, showing very strong support for her among women aged 25 to 46.

“It means that females are uniting for the future, for changes,” she said. “This is the main victory that we can imagine during our campaign.”

Two young women in the audience said they planned to vote for her.

“Maybe women in an older generation see domestic violence as normal,” said Maria Badmayeva, who is 26. “But we in the younger generation are more progressive. We think the values that Alyona stands for are essential.”

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.



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Jill Biden Is Chasing the President’s Most Elusive Campaign Promise: Unity

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Jill Biden Is Chasing the President’s Most Elusive Campaign Promise: Unity


“It’s kind of funny,” she said of her return to the classroom. “My students are really nonplused.”

According to emails obtained by CBS News and, later, The New York Times, she adamantly resisted being promoted as first lady in campus materials for the school, Northern Virginia Community College. “I want students to see me as their English teacher,” she wrote to an employee who wanted to use her role in promotional materials. In communications with campus officials, she also did not want her married name listed on the class schedule. This semester, she is still listed under “J. Tracy.”

As they spent weeks last winter figuring out how to make it possible for Dr. Biden to keep teaching, campus officials, working with White House lawyers, arranged for her to be paid out of a nonprofit fund-raising account to avoid conflicts with the Constitution’s emoluments clause, according to an administration official.

“Jill has her own career separate from whatever duties may have fallen upon first ladies by tradition,” Jimmie McClellan, the dean of liberal arts and Dr. Biden’s supervisor, said in an email.

Unlike other first ladies who have put careers on hold to support their husbands in the White House, Dr. Biden has long juggled competing identities at once. Growing up Jill Jacobs in a suburb of Philadelphia, the future first lady came of age during feminism’s second wave, a time when women were told to put themselves before any potential husband. But she ended up marrying for the first time when in 1970 she was 18, to the owner of a popular Delaware bar. The couple divorced in 1975.

When she married for the second time, to Mr. Biden in 1977, her identity was overshadowed by marrying a public figure whose tragic back story — a car crash that killed his wife and young daughter — required her to put her own life on hold. She stopped her career as a teacher to raise his sons, Beau and Hunter. They later had a daughter, Ashley. Eventually, Dr. Biden found her way back to teaching, and earned a doctorate in educational leadership.



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Thousands Evacuated as Canary Island Volcano Erupts

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Thousands Evacuated as Canary Island Volcano Erupts


A volcano erupted Sunday on the Spanish island of La Palma, spewing lava and a thick column of smoke and prompting the authorities to evacuate thousands of residents from nearby towns.

The eruption was the first in 50 years on La Palma, a resort island in the Canary archipelago popular with visitors from northern Europe. The Canary Islands are in the Atlantic Ocean, off the northwestern coast of Africa.

Spain’s military said on Sunday that it would evacuate between 5,000 and 10,000 residents of villages on the edge of La Cumbre Vieja national park, as flowing lava and fires neared the surrounding farms and homes.

Firefighters and emergency workers were being sent from the archipelago’s larger islands, Tenerife and Gran Canaria, and Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain delayed a planned trip to New York ahead of the United Nations General Assembly. Instead, Mr. Sánchez joined members of the military’s national emergency response unit on Sunday in La Palma.

The volcano erupted around 3:15 p.m., dramatically belching lava into the air and sending fiery rivers of molten lava down its sides. Scientists had warned an eruption was imminent following days of increased seismic activity in the area, including a magnitude 3.8 earthquake.

Home to about 85,000 residents, La Palma is one of the smallest Canary Islands. The previous most recent eruption on La Palma began in October 1971 and lasted more than three weeks. That eruption killed one person, a tourist who died after inhaling toxic gases while trying to admire the lava.



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Live Updates: Remains Believed to Belong to Woman Missing in Van Mystery Are Found

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Live Updates: Remains Believed to Belong to Woman Missing in Van Mystery Are Found


Image
Credit…North Port Police Department, via Associated Press

Human remains believed to belong to a Florida woman reported missing after her fiancé returned home from a monthslong van trip without her were found in a national park in Wyoming on Sunday, the F.B.I. said at a news conference.

“Earlier today, human remains were discovered, consistent with a description of Gabrielle (Gabby) Petito,” said Charles Jones, an F.BI. agent, adding that a full forensic identification had not been completed to confirm the remains were those of Ms. Petito, 22.

“On behalf of the F.B.I. personnel and our partners, I would like to extend sincere, sincere and heartfelt condolences to Gabby’s family,” said Mr. Jones, who did not take questions at the news conference. “As every parent can imagine, this is an incredibly difficult time for the family and friends. Our thoughts and prayers are with them. We ask that you all respect their privacy as they mourn the loss of their daughter.”

A cause of death had not been determined, Mr. Jones said.

The remains were found in the area of the Spread Creek Dispersed Camping Area, located in the Bridger-Teton National Forest on the east boundary of Grand Teton National Park, Mr. Jones said, adding that the campsite will remain closed. Anyone who had been in the camping area between Aug. 27 and Aug. 30 was urged to contact the F.B.I., Mr. Jones said.

The discovery of the remains believed to be that of Ms. Petito appeared to end one search for a missing person as another continued for her missing fiancé, Brian Laundrie, 23, after his parents told the police they had not seen him in days.

Mr. Laundrie, whom the police have called a “person of interest,” had through a lawyer declined to speak with investigators, the police said. When his parents told the police that he, too, was missing, a search for him began that included scouring a vast Florida wildlife refuge.

Lawyers for the Petito family and Mr. Laundrie did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Sunday night.

As the police, F.B.I. agents and National Park rangers searched for Ms. Petito in Wyoming, the woman’s last known whereabouts, according to her family, the authorities in Florida searched for Mr. Laundrie in the refuge, a 24,565-acre park in Sarasota County called the Carlton Reserve. On Sunday afternoon, the police in North Port, Fla., said their search at the Carlton Reserve had ended for the evening with nothing new to report.

The North Port Police Department said they were “saddened and heartbroken to learn that Gabby has been found deceased.”

“We will continue to work with the F.B.I. in the search for more answers,” they said.

Ms. Petito left with Mr. Laundrie in July in a white Ford van outfitted for a cross-country adventure. On Sept. 1, Mr. Laundrie returned to the home in North Port, Fla., where he lived with his parents and Ms. Petito, in the white van that the couple had used for the trip and that had been registered to Ms. Petito.

Ten days later, Ms. Petito was reported missing by her parents on Sept. 11, according to the police.

In the days after Ms. Petito was reported missing, the authorities expressed “frustration” in their efforts to speak to Mr. Laundrie, who has not been declared a suspect in the case.

The case has drawn widespread attention, as reporters have gathered outside Mr. Laundrie’s house and some in the public have scoured the couple’s Instagram accounts, which depicted a seemingly carefree, nomadic “van life” in the American West.

Ms. Petito and Mr. Laundrie left New York on July 2 for what was supposed to be a four-month, cross-country trip visiting national parks, said Ms. Petito’s stepfather, Jim Schmidt. The couple posted photos and cheerful updates on Instagram and YouTube, and outfitted the van with a bed, tiny bookcases and plants and art.

But something apparently went wrong in Moab, Utah, Ms. Petito’s family said.

On Aug. 12, police officers there responded to a report of a “domestic problem” after Mr. Laundrie had “some sort of argument” with Ms. Petito and told her to take a walk and calm down, according to a police report.

Mr. Laundrie and Ms. Petito both told the officers that they were in love and engaged to be married and “desperately didn’t wish to see anyone charged with a crime,” the report said.

Mr. Laundrie told one officer that “issues between the two had been building over the last few days,” it said.

During the encounter with the police, Ms. Petito cried and said she suffered from anxiety, according to body camera footage of the episode. In the police report, Ms. Petito is recorded saying she moved to slap Mr. Laundrie because she feared that he “was going to leave her in Moab without a ride.”

Both told the police that the episode should be classified as a “mental/emotional health ‘break,’” rather than as a domestic assault.

In the report, the police described Mr. Laundrie as the victim of the incident. They arranged for him to stay in a hotel that night while Ms. Petito kept the van. No charges were filed, the report states.

In social media posts published before and after Aug. 12, the couple documented their trip, including with many photos of Ms. Petito posing against backdrops of nature. The YouTube video showed the couple kissing, scaling rocks and laughing at how the Utah sun had melted the chocolate in Mr. Laundrie’s granola.

“I love the van,” Ms. Petito said, smiling at Mr. Laundrie.

Ms. Petito, the oldest of six siblings, had worked as a pharmacy technician to save money for the trip. She met Mr. Laundrie at Bayport-Blue Point High School on Long Island, Mr. Schmidt said. They began dating after graduation and moved two years ago to Florida, he said.

In their posts from 2020, the couple expressed excitement about their future.

Alan Yuhas contributed reporting.



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