A memorial to French victims of domestic violence. Photo: Getty
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"Isolated incidents": how the laws around domestic violence are failing its victims

An investigation into the murder of Natalie Esack by her estranged husband reveals it followed a campaign of terror waged by a man who could not countenance finally losing control over his victim. But police and prosecutors can only respond to individuals threats and acts of violence. It's time for a change in the law.

On the 30 April 2012, a former police detective called Ivan Esack killed his estranged wife, Natalie.

Esack walked into Natalie's hair salon in Ashford, Kent, just after nine in the morning, and stabbed her eleven times with a kitchen knife. He stabbed her with “such ferocity, the 8in blade bent and the tip broke off”. For this, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison. Reports from the time dubbed Natalie a “tragic hairdresser”.

Women murdered by men are often described by the media as tragic. There is a sense in that word of catastrophe, of horror, of something out of the ordinary. Something that could not have been prevented. Perhaps that word gives us a sense of comfort in the face of such brutality. This could not have been predicted, there is nothing we could have done. This is a freak accident.

Such words may comfort us, but they are dangerous, and our comfort comes at a cost of reckoning with a reality that we must face if we are serious about tackling the epidemic of domestic violence. And make no mistake: it is an epidemic. The prevalence of domestic abuse means that in some countries 40-70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by a husband or boyfriend, according to the UN. It is an epidemic to which we are so inured that the steady reports of abuse, of beatings, of assaults, of imprisonment, of death, barely register. They are not front-page news. After all, to put it bluntly, “man kills partner”, is not news. It is the opposite of new. It is old. Tragically old.

Last week a Domestic Homicide Review - a multi-agency investigation - into Natalie's murder was released. Like so many before it, the review found that this death was not a freak occurrence that could not have been prevented. Rather, it found “evidence of escalating abuse towards [Natalie Esack] in the six months before her death and risk factors in [Ivan Esack's] behaviour”.

A report from Paladin, the National Stalking Advocacy Service, reveals that the risk factors were observable more than six months prior to her murder. The relationship was abusive “from early on”, with Esack belittling and demeaning Natalie in an effort to keep her pliable and under his control. She was not allowed to leave the house without his permission and had to “check in” with him constantly. Nevertheless, she managed to leave the relationship on more than one occasion – but found herself on the receiving end of incessant calls and messages, alternately abusive and pleading, that would go on, one after the other, until she finally gave in and replied. At one point he was calling her more than forty time a day. He would turn up at her work, at her home, threatening, intimidating, pleading. When Natalie finally left for good and started seeing someone new, Esack told her that “she was a dead woman walking”. “Tick-tock, tick-tock”, he texted her. In one telephone conversation, he presented Natalie with her options: “Death, death, death”. Natalie contacted the police four times about Esack. No action was taken. He was classified as “medium risk”.

No one considering the evidence in full can come to any conclusion other than that this was a campaign of terror waged by a man who could not countenance finally losing control over his victim. But that was exactly the problem: the evidence was not considered holistically. All of Natalie's reports of Esack's violence or threats were treated by the police as separate incidents. This may sounds like police incompetence. But it is also a failure of law.

At present, domestic violence itself is not a crime. The Crown Prosecution Service prosecutes perpetrators under assault, burglary, rape, kidnapping. They prosecute single incidents of physical violence, and tend to focus on injury level. The law as it stands allows them to do little else: it provides no remit to recognise a victim of domestic abuse as suffering from an ongoing campaign of coercive control. Rather, she has been punched; she has been thrown down the stairs; she has been stabbed. Tragically. Unpredictably. She has been killed.

Tthis week, the campaign organisation Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse released figures to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary National Oversight Group which clearly show that the more high-risk the case, the greater the likelihood and severity of coercive and controlling behaviour. This data confirms Paladin's claim that it is in the cases where coercive control is present that victims are most likely to be murdered.

In 2013, the Home Office updated its definition of domestic violence to include coercive control, but there has been no corresponding change in the law. Some of the most dangerous cases, although known to the police - although preventable - are continuing to feed the drip-drip-drip of tragic isolated incidents. As the government heads into recess, they might like to listen to those campaigning for a change in the law to allow police and prosecutors to look beyond each individual incident, and think about turning off the tap.

Update, 7 August 2014: This article originally referred to domestic violence as "the largest cause of morbidity in women aged 19-44". However, this was not contained in the WHO report cited as the source. The article was amended to state that “in some countries 40-70 per cent of female murder victims are killed by a husband or partner”, a statistic contained within the report in question.

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue