Following America’s lead: Getting tough on Child Molesters

The phone call to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was unusual. The caller, who refused to identify himself, asked Putin to crack down on pedophiles and then quickly hung up.

Putin, who took the call during a televised call-in show in December, promised to toughen penalties for people who sexually abuse children and pointed to State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who happened to be in the studio at the moment, as the man who would spearhead the legislative effort.

The spontaneity of the call is disputable. Putin’s staff preselects all calls to his call-in shows, and media reports have suggested that the staff orchestrated some of the calls on that December day.

But one thing is for sure. Since the call, the government has adopted a harder line on child abuse — at least in words.

On Monday, International Child Protection Day, Kremlin supporters campaigned heavily against child abuse. Senior officials with United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party that Putin and Gryzlov co-head, held a Moscow round-table on measures to prevent child abuse. Young Guard, the party’s youth branch, held street rallies in 45 cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, to educate children about ways to protect themselves from abuse, the group said on its web site. Another pro-Kremlin youth group, Nashi, held a rally against pedophiles in Moscow.

Statistics on sex crimes against children are scarce. The number of children who were nonviolently sexually abused by adults increased sevenfold from 2003 to 2007 to 5,405, according to legislation under consideration in the Duma that would make good on Putin’s promise for tougher penalties on child abusers.

In 2007, the most recent year that statistics are available for, 8,805 children were victims of violent sexual abuse, the legislation says.

Meanwhile, the number of criminal cases involving suspected pedophiles that were sent to court grew from 35 in 2003 to 351 in 2006, it said. The figures do not indicate, however, how many suspects were involved and how many were convicted.

But even a conviction does not necessarily mean that a child abuser will serve much time in prison. In March, a former United Russia lawmaker with the Perm regional legislature, Igor Pastukhov, won early release after being convicted of raping a boy. Pastukhov had spent three years in prison after being sentenced to six, and his release on parole stirred up anger in Perm. Regional prosecutors said his release was legal.

Curiously, the former lawmaker was freed just days after President Dmitry Medvedev ordered law enforcement agencies to step up their efforts to prevent child abuse. “Proper work to prevent the most terrible and cynical crimes in this area can only be done through the combined efforts of all of society,” Medvedev said at the meeting at his Gorki residence outside Moscow.

Medvedev said Russia needed “a system of childhood protection” that included new legislation, measures to prevent child abuse and social services to care for abused children.

Russia’s current system of fighting child sex crimes is ineffective, especially when compared to that of the United States, Russian and U.S. experts concurred at a recent conference on fighting child sexual abuse.

“It is typical for a pedophile to get three or four years or a suspended sentence, and when they get out, they are not controlled in any way,” Vladimir Ovchinsky, adviser to the chief judge of the Constitutional Court, told the April 20 conference, which was organized by the Public Chamber.

In the United States, in contrast, an Atlanta doctor arrested in 2004 on suspicion of traveling to Russia to have sex with boys and later convicted on separate child sex charges received 35 years in prison, said Alexandra Gelber, a lawyer with the U.S. Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section.

Gelber also told the conference that convicted U.S. offenders usually are monitored by authorities for the rest of their lives and restricted in their contact with children.

“If a criminal violates any of these rules, they will go back to jail,” she said.

Duma deputies are considering legislation that would extend the maximum prison sentence for people convicted of nonviolent sexual abuse of children from the current four years to 10. The bill would bar a convicted offender from working with children for 20 years instead of the current five.

A separate bill would extend the maximum prison terms for producers, dealers and buyers of child pornography from eight to 15 years. The bill also introduces a legal definition of child pornography.

A third bill would bar such convicts from applying for early release, a right which many prisoners have after serving half of their terms.

The Duma is scheduled to consider the bill on early release in a first reading this month. The other bills have not been placed on the agenda yet.

“25% of all sex offenders re-offend within 15 years”

………Sarah Tofte

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