By Svetlana Reiter and Christian Lowe
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin's allies have passed a preliminary draft bill in Russia's parliament that would ease some penalties for domestic violence, which supporters say would keep the state from meddling in the home but critics say would encourage abuse.
Asked about the domestic violence law at a news conference last month, Putin said that while he was not a supporter of parents smacking children, the authorities should not interfere in family affairs without justification.
"We cannot go crazy here. It's harmful, at the end of the day it destroys the family," he said. "Cavalier meddling with the family is not acceptable."
The amendment, which passed parliament's lower house on a preliminary first reading, would reduce battery of a relative to a civil offence instead of a criminal offence in first instances, when the victim suffered no serious harm.
"This law calls for the exoneration of tyrants in the home," said Maria Mokhova, Executive Director of the "Sisters" crisis centre for abuse victims. The message is: "Let's not punish a person who at home beat up his family, just because he has the right to do that," she told Reuters.
One of the authors of the proposed change, Olga Batalina, a member of parliament from Putin's United Russia party, said society wanted to protect parents' right to discipline children.
"Do we think it's right to give a two year prison term to a single mother who, while raising her teenage son, physically punishes him for stealing or running away?" Batalina asked in an interview with Reuters.
Supporters of the amendment say anyone who inflicts serious physical harm will still be criminally liable.
To become law, the draft must go through a further two readings and win approval from the upper house of parliament. The next reading is scheduled for this Wednesday.
Each year, about 14,000 women die in Russia at the hands of husbands or other relatives, according to a 2010 United Nations report.
In his 17 years as Russia's leader, Putin has overseen an embrace of the socially-conservative Russian Orthodox church and a rejection of many liberal ideas as an attempt by the West to impose its values on Russia. One example was a 2013 law making it illegal to promote homosexuality to children.
The Church says it wants to reduce the state's interference in family life.
Marina Pisklakova-Parker, director of the "Anna" centre, which also helps abuse victims, said last year her staff received more than 21,000 requests for help from women who said they had been subject to domestic violence.
She said that if it goes unchecked, low-level domestic violence, of the kind that would be decriminalised under the amendment, often escalates into attacks causing serious injury.
Last month the justice ministry placed her organisation on a register of "foreign agents", a designation that makes it subject to extra scrutiny from the authorities and can make it harder to raise money.
(Editing by Peter Graff)