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Actions in abuse case come under scrutiny

Plenty of people knew of Aasiya Hassan's torment at the hands of her husband, Muzzammil Hassan.

Orchard Park police were called to the Hassans' home and business more than a dozen times over the last 2 1/2 years.

Family Court officials obtained at least three orders of protection against her husband, and recently the couple were no longer living together in the same house.

Yet on Feb. 12, a week after filing for divorce, the 37-year-old mother of two was stabbed repeatedly and beheaded inside the Bridges TV offices, where she still worked with her husband.

He has been charged with second-degree murder, his first arrest in a long history of contact with police.

It's a familiar pattern, advocates for women say. Women often balk at putting the father of their children, the family breadwinner, in jail.

That's why police sometimes need to intervene when there's a pattern of domestic abuse, even if it goes against the victim's wishes, women's advocates say.

But law enforcement authorities say that Orchard Park police did all they could in the Hassan case, including preparing charges that Aasiya refused to sign.

The community that Aasiya left behind is haunted by the question: Could something more have been done that would have prevented her death?

Three times, police prepared charges against Muzzammil Hassan that Aasiya would not sign. But it's not unusual for women to shrink from having their husbands arrested -- especially immigrants with no family in the United States. Aasiya Hassan came to America in 2000, after marrying her husband in Pakistan.

Because women are often dependent on their abuser, police should intercede when a clear pattern of abuse exists, some experts say.

"Often prosecutors can go forward without victims' cooperation," said Rhonda Martinson, an attorney at the Battered Women's Justice Project in Minneapolis.

In fact, New York State in 1994 strengthened its domestic-violence laws to make it easier for a police officer to make an arrest even without the victim's consent.

And Section 140.10 of New York's Criminal Procedure Law says that if an officer finds a reasonable cause for a misdemeanor crime and the domestic abuser is at the scene, the officer shall make an arrest.

Such an arrest, even if it doesn't lead to a conviction, can lead to an order of protection that gets the offender out of the house and creates a cooling-off period.

But Aasiya already had an order of protection and Hassan was out of the family's house when she was slain. The killing occurred inside the Bridges TV offices, where she still worked with her husband.

And Orchard Park police had insufficient cause to arrest Muzzammil Hassan without Aasiya's complaint, others in a position of authority note. Police reports show that her injuries, in the few instances of physical violence or restraint, were relatively minor. Moreover, Muzzammil was not always present when police arrived.

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said he believes police acted properly.

"From everything that I've seen and read thus far, it appears that the Orchard Park Police Department was doing everything in their power and under the law to assist this victim," he said. "All they needed was for her to sign the [criminal] complaint."

The efforts to help Aasiya did not stop with police visits. Aasiya was referred to local agencies that help abused women.

Family Court officials obtained at least three orders of protection against her husband and he moved out of the house at least twice.

And Child Protection Services conducted at least two investigations into the family's home life.

The fact that Aasiya didn't press her complaints with the police riles some advocates for abused women, who are sensitive to the notion that the victim was somehow responsible for her own death.

"We don't know what went on in the privacy of her own home, and to me it sounds like she tried very hard," said Suzanne Tomkins, a University at Buffalo Law School professor who leads domestic violence clinics at the school.

"The assumption that you're making is that, if she signed the papers the police wanted her to sign, she wouldn't have died, and we just don't know that."

Despite the cloud of doubt, it's important to examine what might have been done in an effort to protect others, advocates for women said.

"Every domestic violence case has the potential to be a domestic violence homicide," said Remla Parthasarathy, community relations chairwoman of the Erie County Coalition Against Family Violence.

There were 7,130 reported incidents of abuse in Erie County last year alone, according to the Western New York Family Justice Center, which brings together a myriad of resources to assist domestic violence victims in a single location.

Because of the close ties between the victim and abuser in domestic cases, and because the legal system classifies many domestic disputes as relatively minor crimes, it takes more than the criminal justice system to address abusive family situations, experts said.

By some measures, the Buffalo area is at the forefront.

Western New York cut the ribbon on a new Family Justice Center several years ago that serves as a one-stop location for abused victims.

In one place, a victim can receive shelter services, counseling, contact with police and the district attorney's Domestic Violence Bureau. There are evidence-gathering experts and even court video-conferencing to allow a victim to gain a temporary order of protection on the spot.

It is not known whether Aasiya was introduced to this resource. The International Institute also provides specialized services to immigrant abuse victims, but Executive Director Pam Kefi said she didn't think it would be helpful to talk about it while the Hassan case is ongoing.

In Brooklyn, however, similar programs have worked.

Since the 1990s, Brooklyn has more than halved the deaths resulting from domestic violence through a coordinated response that brings community groups and religious organizations to intervene in abusive situations, said Wanda Lucibello, head of the Brooklyn district attorney's domestic violence unit.

One nonprofit group for immigrants is even located in the borough's Family Justice Center, which is similar to the one in Erie County.

Especially in immigrant communities, where victims can be isolated from family and other sources of help, the key often is not an arrest, but providing the victim with links to housing, job search and counseling, to break the link of dependence on the abuser.

"If people can get an awareness of their choices much earlier, whether in houses of worship, or a hair salon, or [advertising] on the sides of buses, it does make a difference," Lucibello said.

UB's Tomkins also said domestic violence laws need to be improved so that abusers who beat their victims black and blue and even break bones can be charged with something stronger than a misdemeanor.

In Hassan's case, though, no such severe beating is believed to have occurred prior to her death.

Tomkins and others who deal with domestic violence from an academic or social services perspective believe that having a "fatality review" program to dissect what went wrong in a homicide would be of great value.

"There are many other communities that do this," Tomkins added. "Rochester does this, and until we do, we're just not going to have answers to the questions that you raised."

In the meantime, those who cared for Aasiya now say they struggle to make sense of it all.

"I think we are all carrying this guilt in one way or another, that we could have done something," said Faizan Haq, a local professor who helped the couple launch Bridges TV.

Haq noted that the Muslim community in Rochester was instrumental in helping Muzzammil Hassan's second wife escape an apparently abusive situation there about 10 years ago.

"If Aasiya had taken somebody in her confidence in the local community, then I think things would have been put in motion, because community members in Rochester came together to help his second wife escape him," he said.

The local Muslim community has come together following Aasiya's death, to learn more about the incidence of domestic abuse, especially among Muslim women.

"We should learn that we have to speak out, to scream or to whisper," Haq said. "There are so many agencies ready to help."

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